Sunday, 9 August 2009

Fastnet – Thirty Years On

Thursday, August 9th, 1979 - baking hot air was rising from the grain fields of the Great Plains of North America, while across Canada, cold air flowed south from the pole. As the two met the hotter air lifted over the cooler and started to churn. It happens all the time – perhaps there’s a thunderstorm. But on this occasion, the anti-clockwise rotation of the air built and gathered strength, the signature formation of a northern hemisphere low pressure system, or depression. The nascent storm moved east, dropping an inch and a half of rain on the city of Minneapolis, whipping waves and whitecaps across the Great Lakes. On the Friday, it flexed its muscles and claimed its first victim - killing a woman in New York’s Central Park, as roofs were blown off houses and trees knocked down across New England.

Weather forecasters tracked the low out into the Atlantic, where it rode the westerly jet stream towards the Bay of Biscay – a name synonymous with bad weather, but not usually in August. And the summer storm did jink to the north, funnelled between the Azores High and another, much larger depression that had stalled just west of Iceland. Sucking up energy, it accelerated towards the Western Approaches of the British Isles - and there it collided with an unsuspecting fleet of 303 yachts, sailing in the Fastnet Race. In the space of twenty four hours, fifteen people died as twenty four crews abandoned boats battered by sixty knot winds and forty foot breaking waves.

Thirty years later, Stuart Quarrie is the blazered Chief Executive of Cowes Combined Clubs, the event organiser for Cowes Week, one of the world’s biggest regattas with around a thousand boats and 8,500 competitors. It’s an appearance that might fit his job, but belies his appetite for excitement. In 1979, Quarrie was a young instructor at England’s National Sailing Centre in Cowes, and the Fastnet Race was the climax of the summer’s racing. Living where he did, and doing the job he did, it was inevitable that when the start gun went, Quarrie would be amongst the two and a half thousand or so sailors on the 608 mile course. He was racing with two other instructors from the school, one of whom - the skipper, Neil Graham – would, like Quarrie, go on to a successful professional sailing career. They had four students with them aboard the OOD34 Griffin, a new racing boat designed by an American, Doug Peterson, and built in the UK by Jeremy Rogers.

The fleet headed west from Cowes, along the south coast of England to Lands End. There they turned north-west towards the Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland, which they were required to round before returning to Plymouth, via the Scilly Isles. It was the section of the course to and from the Fastnet Rock that was the most exposed, and this is exactly where the storm’s late turn to the north caught the fleet unawares. The forecast fresh gale of 34 to 40 knots turned out to be much, much more, with winds claimed at anything up to 70 knots. There’s a big difference between the two – the Beaufort Scale, which was designed to allow sailors to judge and report wind conditions without benefit of instruments, also describes the effects ashore. A force eight gale of 34 to 40 knots will break twigs from branches – but a 60 knot, force eleven storm will uproot the whole damn tree.

At sea, that same storm produces what are described as exceptionally high waves. How big is that? Well, big enough that small to medium sized ships may be lost to view. That means waves up to 50’ high in a sea completely covered with long white patches of foam, where wave crests are blown into froth. And that’s the dispassionate, scientific description of the Beaufort Scale, rather than my hyperbole. The unsuspecting Griffin was trapped in this maelstrom along with most of the rest of the fleet, and when she was caught by one of those waves big enough to hide a medium-sized ship, Stuart Quarrie was at the helm. As the wave crashed over the boat, it plucked him off the wheel. If he’d had time to think about it, he would have anticipated the shocking jerk around his rib cage as his safety harness came up tight. But the hook on the lanyard straightened (like others that night) and when he surfaced, choking out mouthfuls of water, there was every reason to believe that the boat would be gone. It wasn’t.

Stuart Quarrie was luckier than most, Griffin had capsized in the same wave that had taken him overboard and was now upside down and dead in the water – just yards away. With her navigation lights buried underwater, the only reason he could see the boat in the black night was because the little light on the man-overboard buoy had fallen from its harness and was now bobbing around. Quarrie started to swim with all the strength and none of the technique of a man five yards from winning an Olympic freestyle gold. Struggling back on board, he has a vivid memory of Neil Graham exhorting everyone to bail, then changing his mind barely a breath later, and yelling to abandon ship. Water had filled the cabin, the deck was just inches above the sea. The crew left Griffin for the life raft, and had drifted no more than twenty feet away when the yacht sank.

The liferaft turned out to be a place of temporary sanctuary. It was less than an hour before it was capsized by another wave. The force of the roll ripped the canopy away and although the men got it back upright, they were now sitting in a giant life ring, completely exposed to the seas, to the wind, rain and cold. With one of their number dressed in just a t-shirt and jeans – he had been changing when the boat capsized – the situation was grim. But Stuart Quarrie’s luck held, their flares were spotted by a French yacht, the Lorelei, a 36 footer owned and skippered by Alain Catherineau. Getting the men of the Griffin off the raft in those conditions was anything but simple, and it took several attempts to get the Lorelei alongside. But Alain Catherineau kept his head, and an hour later the last man was hauled off the raft – his hypothermic hands pried away from the handholds. After two hours in the water in a t-shirt, he was fortunate that the Griffin’s story avoided the tragic ending of so many others.

There is an odd postscript - two years later, the Cowes police phoned Quarrie to say that they had his credit card wallet. Strange - he wasn’t aware that he’d lost it. No, the police explained, this one had come up in the nets of a trawler, still in Griffin’s navigation table, where Quarrie had placed it at the start of the 1979 Fastnet. The chances of that wallet finding its way home are only slightly slimmer than the combination of luck, courage and good judgement that allowed Stuart Quarrie to survive that night in the Irish Sea. The nightmares went on for five years. And almost thirty years later he still has the wallet, and he still maintains contact with Alain Catherineau – Yachtsman of the Year in 1979.

This is one of dozens of similar stories from that horrific night in the Western Approaches. I’ve picked it because I’ve sailed with and against Stuart quite a bit over the years and, well, because it has a happy ending. Many of the other accounts that are brought together by John Rousmaniere in his excellent book, Fastnet Force 10, don’t have that advantage. And it’s those tragic tales that much of the media attention has focused on these past few days, as the thirtieth anniversary has approached. But at the time, it was an altogether different story that I heard as a young dingy sailor.

When that vicious low pressure system subsequently made a landfall, lifting over the highlands of Britain’s west coast and dumping another deluge, it was the final straw in a sodden summer that cut short our family camping and sailing holiday on the shores of Lake Coniston. The faithful, if short entries in my Motor Boat and Yachting Diary 1979 show absolutely no recognition of the disaster unfolding a few hundred miles away. It’s much more concerned with the fact that we were going home early, and with subsequent preparations for a local regatta. I don’t know whether this was an omission, or because news, even bad news, was much easier to avoid in those days. But our sailing community was pretty insular - huddled as it was around a muddy-coloured stretch of water just inland from the bleak North Sea fishing port of Lowestoft. I wouldn’t knowingly meet anyone that had been in that 1979 Fastnet Race for another seven years. And so the actual stories of tragedy and triumph, the bravery and the failures passed me by at the time – but I did hear one story, which I’ve never forgotten.

Its star is Harold Cudmore, an Irishman with a marvellous line of blarney and an almost frighteningly stereotypical twinkle in his eye. Cudmore was a top dinghy sailor in the late sixties and early seventies who successfully switched to racing bigger yachts for their wealthy owners. At the height of his powers he would say that he could walk into any chosen pub or bar, and come out with the money to build and campaign a boat. In 1979, he was hired by Hugh Coveney to call the tactics on his Ron Holland designed 44 footer, Golden Apple of the Sun. Holland himself had also chosen to sail on Golden Apple, and they had brought on board Rodney Pattison, who – until Ben Ainslie came along - was Britain’s most successful Olympic yachtsman, with two golds and a silver. Golden Apple, golden boys – the yacht had painted on her stern the last stanza of WB Yeats poem, The Song of the Wandering Aengus, which gave up both her name, and that of one of her team mates in a three boat Irish team – Silver Apple of the Moon.

They were contesting what was then one of the sport’s leading events, the currently defunct Admiral’s Cup. But for a long while this was the unofficial world championship of offshore racing. Three boat teams from the world’s sailing nations met in the Solent for a biannual series of races through and around Cowes Week, culminating in the Fastnet. In 1979, the Irish were having a good year - at the start of the final race they were leading eighteen other teams. And early on the morning of August 14th, with the storm reaching its peak, Golden Apple of the Sun was the first of the Admiral’s Cup yachts around the Fastnet Rock. Sailing under the spinnaker (a powerful but unpredictable sail at the best of times in those old offshore boats) Cudmore, so the story goes, had a man strapped to the mast with a flare gun. The instructions were simple; if we start to lose it, shoot the flare through the spinnaker.

The intention must have been that the sudden reduction in sail area would allow the helmsman to regain control of the boat and avoid a destructive crash, or broach as the technical term would have it. What nerve, what bravado – men and women were abandoning yachts all over the Western Approaches, and here was the piratical, nerveless Cudmore, hurtling through this awesome storm with the spinnaker set and only a flare gun between death and glory. The appeal to a teenage boy disconnected from the tragic realities of that storm is obvious.

Seven years later I was sailing with Harold as part of a British America’s Cup Challenge, of which he was skipper. In 1989, I navigated aboard Jamarella, member of a winning British Admiral’s Cup team managed by Harold Cudmore, who sailed the Fastnet with us. And even then, I never got around to asking him if the ‘flare gun’ story was true.

Rousmaniere’s account is, after all, rather more prosaic. On the Tuesday morning, on the way from the Fastnet Rock to the Scilly Isles, the steering cables jumped off Golden Apple’s rudder quadrant. It took a couple of hours to repair, but the Irish got the boat fixed and carried on. They lasted only a couple more hours, until, with Ron Holland at the helm (ironically), the rudder itself broke. They tried using the spinnaker pole with a pre-prepared metal plate screwed to the end of it. The pole broke and the boat was left rolling helplessly to the waves - the race, the Admiral’s Cup, all gone.

And that’s how rescue helicopter Wessex-527 found them. Golden Apple’s owner, Hugh Coveney, was given little time to make a choice about whether or not to abandon the yacht. With the Scilly Isles now 40 miles to leeward, Coveney decided the smart thing to do was to go ashore and try and find a powerboat to tow the yacht to safety. All ten men were picked up by the chopper, and that was the end of Harold Cudmore’s Fastnet.

No mention of spinnakers, flare guns or anyone strapped to the mast. Of course, I could just contact Harold and ask him the truth, but a few years ago, I came across a very similar story about the old clipper ships – running before a storm, the skipper was said to have chained a man to the main mast with an axe, and instructions that should the helmsman lose control at the wheel, the ropes holding the sails aloft were to be cut. Ah, I thought, the light bulb of recognition coming on - sailing’s answer to the urban myth.

If anything, the story about the square rigger is the more plausible. If there was one thing that boats like Golden Apple (built to the International Offshore Rule of the late-70s) didn’t need with the spinnaker up, it was extra weight at the front, near the mast. It was guaranteed to make the boat more difficult to drive. And what if the flare did hit the sodden spinnaker? Would it do much more than punch a hole through it, leaving you with what you had anyway – a mess of flogging nylon?

I've never tried it, so I can't be sure. But, in contrast, square rigged ships running before a storm could absolutely not afford to lose control. The spars were not supported strongly enough for the ship to point into the wind, with sail up in a gale. All the rigging was set to hold the masts up with the wind coming from the side or the stern – not directly from the bow. If you lost control downwind in a big sea and the ship rounded up into the wind (broaching), the entire rig would come crashing down around your ears. It would likely be the end for all on board – the wreckage dragging the ship under before it could be cut away.

In his book, Rousmaniere tells of the need for the survivors to talk down the storm, to somehow, ‘inoculate ourselves against the awareness that, at its worst, the storm was much more dangerous than, say, the 1972 Bermuda Race gale, and that there had been excellent reason to be frightened.’ Was the entire sailing community involved in the same process – reaching for a time-honoured myth and re-casting it to make us feel more comfortable with the ferocious challenge of that storm? Is that what filtered that particular story through to a teenage dinghy sailor, and got it stuck fast in my consciousness for three decades? Perhaps, and if so, the new tale continued to serve the time-honoured purpose of myth and legend. And who then, are we to ruin a good story with the truth?


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