Sunday, August 09, 2009

[fastnet] when sport turns to disaster

Fastnet gets under way today - that race for the Fastnet Rock, one of the most treacherous races on the international calendar. No one remembers the good weather races so much but everyone remembers a disaster and 1979 was such a year. Wiki says:

Storms during the race wreaked havoc on over 306 yachts taking part in the biennial race, resulting in 15 fatalities. Over 13–14 August, 25 of the 306 yachts taking part were sunk or disabled due to high winds and "mountainous seas".

The Daily Telegraph (15 August, 1979, p. 1) described the situation, where "Royal Navy ships, RAF Nimrod jets, helicopters, lifeboats, a Dutch warship and other craft picked up 125 yachtsmen whose boats had been caught in force 11 violent storm strength gusts midway between Land's End and Fastnet".

The effort also included tugs, trawlers, and tankers. Rescue efforts began after 6:30 am on 14 August, once the winds had dropped to severe gale Force 9.

Apart from the magnificent response and the name-calling and scapegoat finding which inevitably followed, a lot of good came out of it and though I'm not one for regulation in what is, after all, a leisure time sport, nevertheless some quite sensible rules were put in place since that race and it's a safer business now. Below is the only decent youtube of the event in general.

The Sydney to Hobart race in 1998 was a similar situation, with many deaths. This race has a reputation of being one of the world's premier bluewater events and is known to be unpredictable and gruelling. Below is a sometimes annoying video because of the wildly dramatic commentary but the footage is rivetting and conveys the nature of the mayhem.

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Those vids really do show just how difficult it is to rescue someone in high winds and 30 metre seas.

The start of the race is rated one of the most spectacular in the world but once they're round the heads and heading south, then they're at the mercy of the Pacific and that ocean can be anything but pacific.

My own rescue does not reach those heights for drama but I'd like to inflict it on you if you can stand it. I

t was in a stretch of water called Port Philip Bay, known for its treachery and I was sailing out of my yacht club. The conditions were not good but not too bad - the winds were about 15 knots.

It was a race and as usual, the faster, larger boats were sent off last, which I always thought was silly because we'd have to work our way through the smaller craft, many of those crewed by kids. One thing you don't need is a cat like mine slicing you in two at 15-20 knots and it stresses us out too.

Anyway, I decided to use my boat speed when sailing off the wind a bit to avoid the mass of small craft and sailed out to the edge of the course. At that point, some of the kids were having trouble in the distance, more in fornt of the clubhouse and the last I saw was the rescue boat charging towards them.

At that point, I heard the snap of the trapeze I was on and the resulting momentum threw me through the air, maybe 5 metres, 15 feet or so, with the boat still sailing away at top speed - more now that I was off it. Then it slowly keeled over and turned upside down, making it invisible, in those waves, from even the control tower.

It was the end of the season, the last race and there I was in the water, in life-vest [I didn't wear a lifejacket when racing], the boat gone and about 0.7 of a kilometre from shore, with the wind coming offshore. Strike out for the shore or for the boat? That was the question.

This was my class of boat, the A Class, 18 feet, 150 sq ft in area, 30 foot mast, sailed from trapeze

I tried both but it was no use - the boat was drifting away and the shore now seemed the only way. However, the cold was now getting to me and I was going numb. I thought I might have about 20 minutes consciousness left. Using sidestroke, the vest was in the way but I thought I'd better leave it on.

I ceased moving forward and started to go in and out of consciousness, treading water, then forgetting to, sinking, coming to and trying again and so on.

Suddenly, there was a boat on the scene - a pleasure craft, with some girls on the front. That was the only powercraft I'd seen that day as it was end of season and chilly. So, OK, the clumsy clots or heroic rescuers, however you see them, did eventually rescue my boat, breaking it in the process and rescued me, of course.

After a hot cuppa in the clubhouse later, I went to the control tower and asked why they hadn't sent the boat. They hadn't known I was in trouble - as a senior of the club, no one expected I'd ever come a cropper on that leviathan. Fair enough - the kids have to come first, always.

Still, it left a sort of chill which doesn't stop me sailing but I'm a bit more careful nowadays.

The clubhouse is a wonderful place to be after it all

One hopes that this year's Fastnet will be a much smoother passage. If you're religious and even if you're not, you might like to spare a prayer for these men and women.


Anonymous said...

Terrific stuff... a heady combination of sport and danger... a long way from beach volley-ball!

Glad you're OK, but in future I fear that running a blog may prove more hazardous.

nikita said...

I was looking for your post about the woman in red..wanted to see if it was me.. :))

jams o donnell said...

20 years ago I was in Schull in SW Ireland just before the Fastnet race. An Irish navy vessel LE Aiofe was moored in Roaring water Bay.

I discovered in an extremely pleasant and extremely drunken night with the offficers of the Aiofe that they were acting as a guardship should there have been a repeat of the sad events of 10 years before.

Luckily there wasn't but I did have a monstrous hangover!

James Higham said...

Harry - it may well prove so.

Nikita - the woman in red's here.

Other readers - don't worry - just a red herring.

Jams - I like those sorts of nights too.

nikita said...

LOL! James, I thought it was something you wrote yourself. I saw the song earlier, but was looking for your own writing :) might be me... haha..

Anonymous said...

Last time I went to Ireland... All I remember is arriving at Cork airport and then turning the key in the lock on my front door when I got home.

James Higham said...

Nikita - you've given me an idea now, you know. Hmmmmmmmmmm.

Harry - Ireland does that to us.

Dragonstar said...

The sea has a habit of catching you in a nanosecond of inattention!
Glad you survived.