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Jack Knights
August 27, 1979
Howling winds and mountainous waves caught the 306-boat Fastnet Race fleet in open waters off Britain, claiming 15 lives
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August 27, 1979

An Awesome Warning From The Sea

Howling winds and mountainous waves caught the 306-boat Fastnet Race fleet in open waters off Britain, claiming 15 lives

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Those who got just a shaking were the lucky—or well-prepared—ones. Said Arthur Moss of the Camargue, "I never thought I would see a steering wheel, complete with a man attached, soar into the seas. Thank God for our life ropes."

This summer England's weather had been unusually warm and settled. Then at the beginning of August, with the start of Admiral's Cup competition, a five-race series culminating in the Fastnet, it got rough. On Aug. 2, Force 5 (19-24 mph) winds coming out of a black sky broached the boats merrily. On Aug. 9, in the middle of Cowes Week, England's international regatta, came a full-bore gale.

For the Fastnet start on the following Saturday there was an uneasy weather truce. Though the westerly head wind was light, 12 to 20 knots was forecast for the Fastnet area for the next couple of days. That evening a chill, gray fog blew in off the Channel, making one think of Shakespeare's omens and portents. Through Sunday the boats crept down the Channel, some favoring the bays, some the open sea. It wasn't till the early hours of Monday that they began to filter past Land's End.

At 4 p.m. on Monday a weather forecast promised a Force 8 (39-46 mph) southwest gale later that evening off Plymouth, with a Force 4-5 increasing to 6-7 for the Fastnet Rock area. Many were almost becalmed when they received this news.

At 12:50 that afternoon, the 79-foot Kialoa, skippered by Jim Kilroy of Los Angeles, heading the fleet, had turned the Fastnet Rock in a 12-18 mph wind. By the time Ted Turner's 61-foot Tenacious made Fastnet, 6:31 p.m., full sail was excessive. Turner, the 1977 America's Cup defender and Fastnet record-setter with American Eagle in 1971, had Tenacious reefed as she turned.

When the wind gauge hit a steady 40 knots, Turner poked his head through the main hatch, studied the sea with the care of a connoisseur and remarked, "Gee, those are big waves." By midnight Tenacious was down to three reefs in the main and her smallest working jib, yet she was still making 10 knots. Soon the main was dropped completely.

As the wind veered to the west it headed the smaller boats struggling up to the Fastnet Rock. Yachtsmen began to relearn that in gusts of more than 60 knots, craft under 40 feet cannot make progress against the wind. And those under 30 become fully occupied with the simple necessity of staying afloat.

At midnight the British Meteorological Office warned, "The depression has deepened alarmingly in the last 12 hours and the worst is still to come." From midnight on, all but a very few of the small craft and many of the large were giving up on rounding the Rock and continuing the race. They were either lying ahull with no sail and the crew below, or running before the gale under bare poles. Or they were sending out maydays.

Yachts would persevere till a particularly big sea knocked them flat or swept their decks, taking crewmen to the limit of their lifelines—and sometimes, when the harness broke, beyond. Some were washed out of the cockpit by one wave, then miraculously washed back by another. The 36-foot Tiderace was rolled through 360 degrees when attempting to run under bare poles. Her mast was broken and two men were swept off her deck. One lost contact with the yacht when his harness broke. Somehow fellow crew members got a line to him and brought him aboard.

Each yacht seemed to receive the full force of one particularly ugly brute of a wave. Britain's former Prime Minister Ted Heath was shaken when his 44-foot Morning Cloud was knocked over more than 90 degrees. The 42-foot Lancer was rolled well below horizontal even though she wasn't setting a stitch of sail. Those below, including owner Roger Fuller, were injured by the impact, he being gashed in the face. "In 40 years of yachting I have never seen anything like it," said Fuller.

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