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Andy’s Experience of the Notorious 1979 Fastnet Race

At the time of the ‘79 Fastnet, I was spending some weekends testing new designs that Westerly Yachts were producing. That summer I had been testing the J30, the forerunner of the J29. This was a boat designed by Rod Johnson which was to be marketed as a racing yacht that could go ‘round the cans’ and handle a certain amount of offshore work. It was basically very similar to the J24, a fairly flighty vessel that would plane downwind. It had a ballast ratio of 37%, in other words, a fairly unstable vessel for offshore racing.

We had had a reasonably successful Cowes Week in the J30 which was called ‘Joggernaut’ and hoped to round it off with a good Fastnet Race. We also hoped for a fairly speedy race as one of the features of the J30 was that it had septic storage tanks but these had not actually been activated so any offshore sailing involved some primitive ‘bucket and chuck it’ arrangements! One of the visitors during Cowes Week had inadvertently tried it out unbeknown to us which caused a rather interesting smell later.

‘Joggernaut’ carried a crew of 6 and we were used to racing together. There was myself, Tim, the navigator and racing manager of Westerly Yachts, Phil, co-navigator and cook, Colin, a naval helicopter pilot who had sailed on the Royal Navy’s ‘Adventure’ in the Rio leg of the Round the World Race, Peter, a regular crew member who had sailed on all sorts of boats with me and Jonathan who was the son of the Managing Director of Westerly Yachts and taking part in his first Fastnet Race.

Tim and I had been sailing together for some years. He was an ex-naval officer and a very keen and experienced yachtsman. He had been my navigator in the 1976 3/4 ton World Championship when we achieved a 3rd place overall. Our friendship survived racing together and I later became godfather to his son, Andrew.

Phil was the other stalwart of the crew, a real sea dog who had spent years in the Merchant Navy before having a complete change of career and moving to work in the City. He was also an excellent cook and these skills were never more appreciated than on this race.

The night before the start of the Fastnet the weather seemed very quiet and the forecast was not particularly good though not especially alarming. Jonathan’s father held a barbecue which we all attended and one or two of us expressed a sense of foreboding, a feeling of disquiet. It was rather eerie, not something that I had ever experienced on four previous Fastnet Races.

We went on board early to check the boat over and at lunch time started on the Royal Yacht Squadron Line. Our fears seemed misplaced as we set off in sunshine with good visibility but fairly light airs.
By nightfall we had reached St Alban’s Head still with good visibility. We arrived at Portland Bill around midnight in company with a large fleet of other boats, some of whom were part of the Admiral’s Cup team, at this stage we were probably quite well up the fleet. We were all trying to make headway against the flood tide. The whole fleet was inshore hugging the rocks trying to gain some ground against 3-4 knots of tide. The scene must have been quite spectacular from the shore, the mass of sails, the sea of red and green lights. It took us a few attempts to round the Bill and we finally made it by coming in to within a few yards of the rocks.
By Sunday the wind had dropped and a fog had crept up reducing visibility to no more than 50 or 60 yards. We drifted on making little headway.

As the fog lifted at dawn on Monday we could see that we were still in company with a large part of the fleet sailing under light spinnakers to make the best of no more than 2 knots of wind. As we rounded Lands End the wind began to increase and we were about to set course for the Fastnet Rock on a reach under spinnaker and full mainsail. ‘Joggernaut’ given the right conditions and right angle of wind would plane at between 13-15 knots but our course was slightly too close to wind to achieve this maximum speed therefore we decided to sail several degrees lower to increase our speed and began planing at 9-10 knots.

As evening approached the wind had risen to force 6-7. The 6 o’clock weather forecast brought warnings of gale force winds locally gusting to storm force 10 in sea area Fastnet. It reminded us sharply of the feelings of unease we had experienced at the snug barbecue back in Cowes.

At this stage we were planing at 12 knots and the spinnaker was becoming something of a handful. We broached several times.

\Within an hour the wind speed had increased still further and the waves grown steeper and higher, covering the sea with a light spume blown from the tops of the waves. We had taken down the spinnaker, put a reef in the mainsail and set the No. 2 genoa. The boat and crew prepared for a rough passage with Jonathan, the least experienced crew member no longer being allowed on deck. Phil, anticipating the long haul ahead of us managed to prepare a pressure cooker full of stew.

Sails were gradually further reduced, first to storm jib and fully reefed mainsail, then storm jib alone and finally by 11 o’clock on Monday night to bare poles. The gooseneck on the boom broke and we had to remove the mainsail completely but this proved to be a blessing in disguise, such was the force of the wind and the waves that even a mainsail stowed on the boom would have caused more resistance and increased chances of a knockdown.

As we reduced to bare poles the wind indicator was showing speeds of 55 knots over the deck.

We dedicated ourselves to the task of survival.

In such situations there is little time for reflection but I had to consider the folly and selfishness of taking part in this type of race when I had a six month old daughter, Zoe. It had already been a fairly eventful spring and summer, not only had I just become a father but I had survived a near fatal accident when I rolled my car over on Brading Down, catastrophe seemed to be following me.

My dinghy experience proved valuable as we tried every angle of sailing to find the best way for the boat (and us) to survive. Phil suggested that we head into the wind and stream warps but our warps were not long or heavy enough to slow ‘Joggernaut’ down and I feared that the force of the water as the boat went astern would tear off the rudder. We then tried running dead down wind but in a boat with the J30’s ability to plane this proved nearly fatal. We shot off at an alarming rate like a surf board out of control and I shouted that if we continued like this we would go down the front of a wave and disappear for ever. Beam reaching was nearly as disastrous as we had the mast in the water several times with the force of the waves on the side of the boat and the force of the wind in the rigging.

We then decided to sail the boat with waves on the quarter and steer it like a dinghy, this was also extremely difficult.

It was like riding a particularly wild roller coaster ride surrounded by the most incredible roaring and hissing.
On the Tuesday night I was down below trying to sleep on some sail bags on the floor when at about 2.00am the boat was knocked down. Below deck was reduced to a chaotic mess of cushions, food and broken glass. Tim and Phil had been wearing life lines but had been swept off deck. The boat rolled through an angle of some 110-120 degrees and recovered. I reached the deck to find Tim and Phil being hauled back on board. As Phil came over the rail he was singing ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’.

I remained on deck to steer the boat and drove the boat on until daylight. At times the entire boat was under water but we were not knocked down as severely as that first time. Even though it was midsummer it was very cold.

Normally when helming for long periods I will cat nap but that could have been fatal on this occasion and the adrenaline was so high that I just kept driving on. Dawn broke with the wind still at gale force and the boat ploughing through huge seas but the sky was gradually beginning to clear. As the storm lessened I was fascinated by the storm petrels, they flew along the tops of the waves and as you plunged down into a trough they would look across at you as if to say ‘you’re mad!’

There was a wonderful contrast now between the cloudless sky and the boiling sea with 50-60 knots of wind still blowing over the deck and the boat occasionally immersed by water.

The engine was not working, probably due to water in the diesel tank, so the batteries had also gone flat which meant that we had lost instrument & light power. Before loss of power we had heard some fairly horrific distress stories over the radio and had taken the decision not to ask for help as we felt we were capable of riding the storm out.

Colin, the helicopter pilot, had been involved in testing life rafts in strong winds and had seen some of the rafts actually take off. His experiences reinforced our feeling that we had to stay with the boat until it actually sank, only taking to a life raft in that most extreme situation.

As the weather eased on that Tuesday morning, Tim and Jonathan tried again to locate the problem with the engine and make it operational. Despite their heroic efforts in a very smelly bilge they had no success but, by mid afternoon the wind had dropped sufficiently to hoist sail.

When it had abated to storm force 7 we put up the storm jib and headed back to Cornwall. We had taken a bearing to the Kinsale gas rig and had estimated that we were somewhere off the south coast of Ireland when the Dunmore East lifeboat appeared and asked us where we were going. We told them that we had decided to go back to Lands End because we weren’t sure where we were and heading for a lee shore without an engine seemed unwise. They told us that we were mad (rather more strongly than that) recommended we went in to Dunmore East in County Waterford and offered us a tow. We declined the tow but turned round and headed for Ireland.

Spirits high at the prospect of alcohol and dry beds, we hoisted a No 2 genoa and jury rigged the mainsail with a spinnaker pole as a boom. We sailed into Dunmore at about 2.00 in the morning to be greeted by applause from local villagers as we sailed up to the quay. We were invited to stay with the harbourmaster and sample the hospitality of the Yacht Club. It was only when we joined the lifeboat crew in the Yacht Club for hot drinks, soup and sandwiches that we learnt of the scale of the disaster that had befallen the Fastnet Race.

Over the next few days we thoroughly enjoyed the warmth of Irish hospitality but still managed in semi sober moments to clean up the boat, repair the engine and fit a new gooseneck. Before leaving England there had already been negotiations with a potential buyer in Northern Ireland. Once we had carried out the essential repairs, we asked him down to lunch and to see the boat, he was delighted with what he saw and bought the boat. We then spent two very happy days celebrating with the locals of Dunmore East before flying home.
On arrival at Heathrow Airport I saw a young man in a wheelchair, I went up to him and asked what he had done. He told me he had broken his leg in the Fastnet Race. I told him about my legs and our Fastnet Race, he laughed and said he felt better already.

Andrew Cassell Foundation (Racing for the Disabled) is a Charity in England and Wales: 1057742

Supports people with disabilities (mainly physical & sensory) to take part in yacht racing and cruising and to encourage the integration of sailors with disabilities with able bodied sailors