1979 Fastnet race

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Coordinates: 50°33′00″N6°58′16″W / 50.550°N 6.971°W / 50.550; -6.971

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Memorial to those who died in the 1979 Fastnet race, Lissarnona, Cape Clear Island, Cork, Ireland 1979 Fastnet race memorial.jpg
Memorial to those who died in the 1979 Fastnet race, Lissarnona, Cape Clear Island, Cork, Ireland

The 1979 Fastnet race was the twenty-eighth Royal Ocean Racing Club's Fastnet race, a yachting race held generally every two years since 1925 on a 605-mile course from Cowes direct to the Fastnet Rock and then to Plymouth via south of the Isles of Scilly. In 1979, it was the climax of the five-race Admiral's Cup competition, as it had been since 1957.

Royal Ocean Racing Club

The Royal Ocean Racing Club is a gentleman's club in London. It was established in 1925 as the Ocean Racing Club, as a result of a race to the Fastnet Rock from Cowes, finishing in Plymouth. The RORC is the principal organiser of offshore yacht races in the United Kingdom, including the Fastnet Race, the Admiral's Cup and the Commodores' Cup. RORC was founded to encourage long distance yacht racing and the design, building and navigation of sailing vessels in which speed and seaworthiness are combined.

Yachting using water vessels, called yachts, for sporting purposes

Yachting refers to the use of recreational boats and ships called yachts for sporting purposes. Yachts are distinguished from working ships mainly by their leisure purpose.

Cowes town on the Isle of Wight, England

Cowes is an English seaport town and civil parish on the Isle of Wight. Cowes is located on the west bank of the estuary of the River Medina, facing the smaller town of East Cowes on the east bank. The two towns are linked by the Cowes Floating Bridge, a chain ferry.

A worse-than-expected storm on the third day of the race wreaked havoc on over 303 yachts that started the biennial race, [1] resulting in 19 fatalities (15 yachtsmen and 4 spectators). Emergency services, naval forces, and civilian vessels from around the west side of the English Channel were summoned to aid what became the largest ever rescue operation in peace-time. This involved some 4,000 people including the entire Irish Naval Service's fleet, lifeboats, commercial boats, and helicopters. [2] [3]

English Channel Arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France

The English Channel, also called simply the Channel, is the body of water that separates Southern England from northern France and links the southern part of the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the busiest shipping area in the world.

Irish Naval Service maritime warfare branch of Irelands military

The Naval Service is the maritime component of the Defence Forces of Ireland and is one of the three branches of the Irish Defence Forces. Its base is in Haulbowline, County Cork.


The 1979 race started on 11 August. BBC Radio shipping forecast, broadcast at 13:55 that day predicted "south-westerly winds, force four to five increasing to force six to seven for a time." [4] By 13 August, winds were reported at Force 6, with gusts of Force 7. Forecasters were predicting winds of Force 8. The leading boat, Kialoa , trailed closely by Condor of Bermuda , [5] was on course to break the Fastnet record set eight years earlier.

BBC Radio division and service of the British Broadcasting Corporation

BBC Radio is an operational business division and service of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The service provides national radio stations covering the majority of musical genres, as well as local radio stations covering local news, affairs and interests. It also oversees online audio content.

Beaufort scale empirical measure describing wind speed based on observed conditions

The Beaufort scale is an empirical measure that relates wind speed to observed conditions at sea or on land. Its full name is the Beaufort wind force scale.


Kialoa was a maxi yacht campaign founded and led by Jim Kilroy spanning from 1956 to 1989.

Meteorological history

A large depression, known as "low Y," formed over the Atlantic Ocean during the weekend of 11–12 August. On 13 August it began to intensify rapidly and turn northeastwards, reaching about 200 nautical miles southwest of Ireland. By the 14th, the low was centred over Wexford. Land-based weather stations reported gale-force winds, with the strongest winds out to sea over the race area. The Meteorological Office assessed the maximum winds as force 10 on the Beaufort scale; many race competitors believed the winds to have reached force 11. [2] [6] Lowest pressure was 979 hPa. [7]

Explosive cyclogenesis rapidly deepening extratropical cyclonic low-pressure area

Explosive cyclogenesis is the rapid deepening of an extratropical cyclonic low-pressure area. The change in pressure needed to classify something as explosive cyclogenesis is latitude dependent. For example, at 60° latitude, explosive cyclogenesis occurs if the central pressure decreases by 24 mbar (hPa) or more in 24 hours. This is a predominantly maritime, winter event, but also occurs in continental settings, even in the summer. This process is the extratropical equivalent of the tropical rapid deepening. Although their cyclogenesis is totally different from that of tropical cyclones, bombs can produce winds of the same order as the first categories of the Saffir-Simpson scale and give heavy rainfall. Even though only a minority of the bombs become so strong, some have caused significant damage.

Wexford Place in Leinster, Ireland

Wexford is the county town of County Wexford, Ireland. Wexford lies on the south side of Wexford Harbour, the estuary of the River Slaney near the southeastern corner of the island of Ireland. The town is linked to Dublin by the M11/N11 National Primary Route; and to Rosslare Europort, Cork and Waterford by the N25. The national rail network connects it to Dublin and Rosslare Europort. It had a population of 20,188 according to the 2016 census.

The disaster and rescue mission

Over 1314 August, of the 303 yachts that started, 24 were abandoned, of which 5 were lost and believed to be sunk, due to high winds and "mountainous seas". [8] The Daily Telegraph (15 August 1979, p. 1) described the situation, where "Royal Navy ships, RAF Nimrod jets, helicopters, lifeboats, a Dutch warship Hr MS. Overijssel 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, [9] and tankers. Rescue efforts began after 6:30 am on 14 August, once the winds had dropped to severe gale Force 9. [10] [ dead link ]

Royal Navy Maritime warfare branch of the United Kingdoms military

The Royal Navy (RN) is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. Although warships were used by the English kings from the early medieval period, the first major maritime engagements were fought in the Hundred Years War against the Kingdom of France. The modern Royal Navy traces its origins to the early 16th century; the oldest of the UK's armed services, it is known as the Senior Service.

A rescue lifeboat is a boat rescue craft which is used to attend a vessel in distress, or its survivors, to rescue crew and passengers. It can be hand pulled, sail powered or powered by an engine. Lifeboats may be rigid, inflatable or rigid-inflatable combination hulled vessels.

Lands End cape in Cornwall, England

Land's End is a headland and holiday complex in western Cornwall, England. It is the most westerly point of mainland Cornwall and England, situated within the Penwith peninsula about eight miles (13 km) west-south-west of Penzance at the western end of the A30 road.

"15 sailors died, five boats sank, and at least 75 boats flipped upside down." [11] In any event, adopting heaving to as a storm tactic proved to be a good preventive of capsize and turtling during the race. One author opines that not one of the hove to yachts were capsized or suffered any serious damage, [12] but the official inquiry makes no such conclusion. [2] One Fastnet participant, John Rousmaniere, writes that

This seminal disaster resulted in a major rethink of racing, risks and prevention. [2] [11]

The coastguard requested support resulting in a Nimrod from Kinloss being ordered to the scene to act as the Scene of Search Coordinator. As the scale of the disaster became apparent other rescue assets were requested and HMS Broadsword was ordered to the scene taking over as the Scene of Search Coordinator on arrival 17:30 on 14 August. [2]

Finishing yachts

The corrected-time (i.e. handicap) winner was the yacht Tenacious, designed by Sparkman & Stephens, owned and skippered by Ted Turner.

The winner on elapsed time in the race was the 77-foot SV Condor of Bermuda skippered by Peter Blake, which gained around 90 minutes on the leader at the Fastnet rock, the SV Kialoa by chancing a spinnaker. Jim Kilroy of the Kialoa had broken his ribs and there was damage to the yacht's runners. SV Condor of Bermuda broke the Fastnet record by nearly eight hours (71h25m23s).

Handicap results all classes (first three in each class) [13] [14]

(yacht type)
(sailed by)
Corrected Time
01TenaciousSS 61 Ted Turner 93:44:19
02 Condor of Bermuda Sp 77R Bell97:57:24
03KialoaJ B Kilroy98:03:40
11Red Rock IVFrE Mandelbaum98:35:05
12AcadiaFrB Keenan99:17:53
13GregalM Peche99:52:39
21EclipsePtR39J C Rogers97:05:27
22Jubile VIPt 42H Hamon97:40:15
23ImpetuousHdG Lambert & J Crisp97:53:53
31RevolutionFn 37J L Fabry97:42:53
32Blue BirdNI 34A Gerard110:48:52
33Ceil IIIMW 40W Turnbull116:33:18
41Black Arrow UFO 34 Royal Air Force S.A.110:35:10
42SamsaraFr 33Madame O. Trans-Van-Dom110:44:19
42LoreleiSSH36M Catherineau [note 1]
43Mahuri UFO 34 G M Lowson122:03:38
51Assent [note 2] Contessa 32 W & A Ker116:58:55


  1. place awarded by Race Committee under rule 12 for loss of time in rescuing crew from yacht Griffin.
  2. Assent was the only Class 5 yacht to finish

Vessels that did not finish

Of the 303 starters, only 86 finished. There were 194 retirements and 24 abandonments (five of which were "lost believed sunk"). [15]

Early press reports were often confused. The Daily Telegraph reported that 69 yachts did not finish. Main source: Daily Telegraph, p. 3, 16 August 1979.


Polar Bear was abandoned but remained afloat and raced again. She is berthed in Plymouth.

Craft that assisted the rescue mission

Over 4000 people aided in the rescue efforts. The Royal Navy coordinated efforts to find around 80 vessels and rescue 136 crew members.

Key contributors to the rescue

HM Coastguard
Royal Navy
Dutch Navy
Irish Navy
United States Navy

These RNLI lifeboats spent 75 hours at sea in 60-knot (110 km/h) winds [17]

Irish Air Corps

Yachtsmen killed

The Fastnet Race Memorial at Holy Trinity Church, Cowes, Isle of Wight lists 19 fatalities, the 15 above and Olivia Davidson, John Dix, Richard Pendred & Peter Pickering [19] who were aboard Bucks Fizz (a yacht shadowing the fleet to view the race). Denis Benson and David Moore were lost from Tempean (not a competitor). Their names were added to the Fastnet memorial at Cape Clear Island harbour. [20] [21]

See also

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  1. 1979 RORC Fastnet Race Inquiry report p7 table 1.2
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Forbes, Laing & Myatt 1979.
  3. Paterson, Tony (18 July 2009). "Hell and high water: The Fastnet disaster". The Independent . Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  4. Siggins 2004, pp. 49.
  5. "Yachts and boats on Internet Video". Sunzu.com. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  6. "Exceptional Weather Events: The Fastnet Disaster" (PDF). Met Éireann. Retrieved 28 March 2012.
  7. Knox et al. 2011.
  8. 1979 RORC Fastnet Race Inquiry report p7 table 1.2
  9. yachtingworld.com: "Fastnet 79 See a map of the rescue", 12 October 2009
  10. "Fastnet 79: The Disaster that Changed Sailing (Eye witness accounts)". Yachting World . Archived from the original on 23 December 2015. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
  11. 1 2 3 Rousmaniere 2000.
  12. Pardey, Lin (2008). Storm Tactics Handbook, 3rd Ed., Modern methods of heaving-to for survival in extreme conditions. Arcata, California: Pardey Books. p. 97. ISBN   978-1-92921-447-1.
  13. Ward 2008, pp. 264-273.
  14. 1979 Fastnet Race Results & Season Point Winners, Royal Ocean Racing Club
  15. 1979 RORC Fastnet Race Inquiry report p7 table 1.2
  16. thespec.com: "Reliving the ill-fated Fastnet", 12 May 2007
  17. Siggins 2004, pp. 50.
  18. Corin & Farr 1983, pp. 120.
  19. "Cowes : Holy Trinity Church - Fastnet Race Memorial". Memorials & Monuments on the Isle of Wight. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
  20. "Fastnet Tragedy Memorial Service". Extract from Southern Star newspaper. Humainst Association of Ireland . Retrieved May 12, 2017.
  21. Laven, Kate (4 August 2009). "Cowes Week 2009: Kieron Kennedy admits he was 'lucky to survive' 1979 Fastnet Race". Daily Telegraph . Retrieved 16 April 2015.


Further reading