Eight men huddle inside a covered life raft, cartwheeling in a mountainous night-time sea. Outside, the shrieking wind of a Force 10 storm whips the ocean into ever-greater fury — vast towering blocks of water forming and crashing down in relentless sequence.
The flimsy craft flips over again and again as wave after wave falls upon it, until at last it can take no more. Suddenly, it splits, spilling its exhausted and battered human cargo into the raging water.
Six men manage to grab hold of its still-inflated remnants but two lose their grip. They hover nearby for an eternity as their crewmates, summoning their last reserves of strength, try to reach them. One appears to swim towards his beckoning friends but the other floats lifelessly in the water, mercifully beyond caring.
Rugged seas: Trying to sail with a tiny storm job. Derek Morland does not dwell on this scene in ordinary life. But it is always there, stowed in the back of his mind, his abiding memory of the 1979 Fastnet disaster, whose 40th anniversary fell this week
In a moment, both men slip from view into the darkness, consumed by the foaming tumult, never to be seen alive again.
Derek Morland does not dwell on this scene in ordinary life. But it is always there, stowed in the back of his mind, his abiding memory of the 1979 Fastnet disaster, whose 40th anniversary fell this week.
Fifteen yachtsmen taking part in the fabled ocean race — and four more in a cruising yacht following the field — lost their lives when a depression barrelling in from the Atlantic unexpectedly deepened into a full-blown Force 10 storm, with winds at times gusting to Force 12, hurricane strength.
The yacht Ariadne drifting and dismasted during the Fastnet yacht race, on August 15, 1979. Fifteen yachtsmen taking part in the fabled ocean race — and four more in a cruising yacht following the field — lost their lives when a depression barrelling in from the Atlantic unexpectedly deepened into a full-blown Force 10 storm
Around 300 yachts, crewed by some 2,500 people, were assaulted by raging seas never encountered during such an event. Five vessels sank and 19 were abandoned — and more than 100 suffered capsizes, knock-downs, broken masts and rudders as the storm tore through an armada strung out between Land’s End and the Fastnet Rock, Ireland’s most southerly point. Of the 303 entrants, 194 retired and only 85 completed the terrible race.
‘We couldn’t reach them. We lost sight of them,’ Mr Morland says of his friends who died. ‘I was 24. It’s part of me — always will be.’
He sees no need to garnish tragedy with a public outpouring of emotion. He knows what it means — to him and the relatives of the two lost men. And the loved ones of the third member of the eight-man crew of the Essex-based racing yacht Trophy who died that night.
‘I thought I was going to drown, as simple as that. We capsized four times in the raft, and on the fourth it split.
Around 300 yachts, crewed by some 2,500 people, were assaulted by raging seas never encountered during such an event (pictured, an upturned life raft 50 miles north west of Land’s End)
‘I thought we were next after three of us had died but you can be frightened for only so long. In the end, we were just waiting for it. If we hadn’t been picked up, we would have gone down with hypothermia. With the waves hitting you for so long it’s so tiring — you just go to sleep.’
The young aerospace engineer and amateur sailor had pretended to be sick to get time off work for the race. Now, here he was, clinging to a shredded life raft, an ordeal that would last ten hours, or so he thinks. Time dissolves when every minute is potentially your last. His life did not flash before his eyes; there was no great sorrow that it was about to be cruelly cut short. Just the animal imperative to survive.
Three days earlier, on Saturday, August 11, he and the crew of the 37ft Trophy had been in high spirits, stowing supplies as they contemplated the 600-mile race starting that day.
The Fastnet is a test of seamanship, taking competitors from the start line at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the spiritual home of British yachting, westward through the English Channel and out in the volatile waters of the Western Approaches — the open Atlantic.
Competitors must round the Fastnet, an exposed outcrop topped by its lonely lighthouse, before retracing the route to the finishing line in Plymouth. The race starts at the end of Cowes Week, highlight of the social and yachting calendar.
Offshore racing is not everyone’s idea of recreation. Lashed by spray and rain, buffeted by waves, the yachtsman must learn to grab sleep in between watches while living in a cramped space at an angle of perhaps 45 degrees. On racing boats, bathroom facilities are rudimentary, privacy non-existent.
The pay-off is a life shorn of modern cares, an escape from the mundane, a rush of freedom in the face of unbridled nature, and vaulting skyscapes unmatched on dry land. A true sense of camaraderie, too, in happy crews.
The Fastnet is a test of seamanship, taking competitors from the start line at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the spiritual home of British yachting, westward through the English Channel and out in the volatile waters of the open Atlantic. Pictured: A winchman is lowered from a Royal Naval helicoptor onto the yacht Grimalkin during the 1979 disaster
Trophy was owned and skippered by a London publican called Alan Bartlett. His crew consisted of Derek Morland, Robin Bowyer, a sailing instructor and expert navigator, Peter Everson, Simon Fleming, Richard Mann, John Puxley and Russell Smith.
Like many boats of her size in that era she had no VHF radio. Navigation relied on Bowyer’s skill — which was considerable — and plotting using radio direction-finding. GPS lay far into the future. When she at last ventured into the Western Approaches, Trophy would be on her own.
As she headed along the English South Coast on Sunday, August 12, BBC radio weather reports suggested an approaching Force 8 gale, with winds of about 45 knots. This was within the crew’s comfort zone. But far away, nemesis was brewing.
Born the previous week over the Midwest of America, a depression later labelled Low Y by Britain’s Met Office — colourful storm names being a thing of the future — began its destructive journey eastward.
Causing damage in New England, it killed a woman in New York’s Central Park (a fallen tree branch) before heading out across the Atlantic. Small and fast-moving, it was hard to track — weather satellites being fewer in number and less capable then.
Monday dawned fair with smooth seas, turning humid in the afternoon. But Peter Whipp, seasoned skipper of the yacht Magic, was uneasy. ‘It was kind of eerie,’ he remembered. ‘I remember charging up the batteries and lashing everything down.’
Paul Warzega (left) is reunited with wife Kari after the disastrous Fastnet Race
As the day wore on the depression slowed and deepened, the sky turning a sinister pink. The Radio 4 shipping forecast was now suggesting Force 9. The flotilla was out in the Approaches, exposed with no port to run to. It was only at 11pm that the forecast warned of the full threat posed by Low Y, with winds expected to rise to storm Force 10, meaning 55 knots. The wolf had thrown off its sheep’s clothing.
Racing through the dark, yacht helmsmen found themselves surfing down increasingly high waves. Exhilarating at first, but then, as Monday turned to Tuesday, reality set in. The armada was at maximum vulnerability, with many boats unable to communicate with the outside world. Flare guns were the only way for some to register distress.
‘It is quite amazing how soon you find yourself alone once you get out into the Approaches,’ says Mr Morland. ‘You see the odd sail on the horizon — you realise how big the ocean is. The visible horizon at deck height on a yacht might be three miles.
‘At first, it was great. It was nice to get out of sight of land. We were surfing down waves with the storm jib up. We needed two guys on the helm to hold it and stay on track. We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves, but a couple of the guys were getting seasick. Robin always got seasick. I often wondered how he managed to navigate so well with a bucket next to him.’
As the night wore on, exhilaration turned to terror. Crews found themselves pitched into individual battles with the elements as huge waves up to 60ft high enveloped their boats — not from one direction but all directions. The sea turned from black to white as its violence increased, great white caps towering over the boats below.
Dramas were being played out in the dark as men and women died, individual tragedies endured by terrified crews of isolated and crippled boats. Crewmen not harnessed to the deck were swept away, while those who were attached found themselves trapped underwater until their capsized yachts righted.
The 30ft yacht Grimalkin was in the eye of the storm. Battered by soaring waves, she repeatedly capsized, and at one point pitchpoled — somersaulting stern over bow as a giant wave sent her careering into a trough. Her skipper, already injured by flying objects below (even secure storage spaces were lacking on many vessels) was swept to his death.
Three men, including the skipper’s son, took to the boat’s life raft believing their two remaining crewmates to be dead or fatally incapacitated. One of two, Gerry Winks, would indeed die that night.
But his young crewmate Nick Ward, an epileptic, would survive, spending hours in the exposed open cockpit of the helpless, dismasted boat with a dead friend as his sole companion, as the nightmarish storm raged throughout the night and into the next day.
The trimaran Bucks Fizz, following the race for fun, would be lost with all hands — four people. Morning Cloud, owned and skippered by former Prime Minister Ted Heath, also suffered a knock-down but survived to complete the race. Trophy was weathering the storm, until fortune intervened: a red distress flare fired from the nearby dismasted yacht Salamander. ‘If we had carried on sailing, I think we would have been fine and reached the Fastnet,’ says Morland. ‘But then we saw the flare — that was when our problems started.’
Ted Turner, Skipper of the American Yacht Tenacious, holds the US flag and gives the thumbs up after learning he won the race
Approaching the stricken boat, Trophy asked if anyone had been swept overboard. The answer was negative. Bartlett and his crew struck sail and used the engine to stand by the stricken yacht.
‘I’m not sure, when I think about it, what we thought we could do, aside from offering moral support,’ says Morland.
‘But equally, if a red flare goes up you can’t ignore it — even though a lot of boats did ignore them because there was nothing they could do. And they were right.’
Now stationary, Trophy was herself vulnerable. A huge wave loomed out of the night and struck her on the bow, sending her plummeting backwards into a trough and breaking the rudder. Another monster soon followed. Bartlett, hooked on, was thrown into the sea as the yacht turned turtle.
Derek Morland, snatching sleep below, awoke to a world turned upside down. When the yacht righted, he went on deck to find his skipper hanging from the side. As he and some crew members helped get Bartlett back on board, others decided to take to the tethered life raft, which had been ejected and inflated by the impact of the wave.
The boat had the rig over the side; it was hitting the hull. And now the life raft had deployed, it was a case of use it or lose it. Morland and his crewmates clambered into the raft. It was, he says with the benefit of hindsight, a ‘dumb’ decision — Trophy would survive to be salvaged.
Experience shows that taking to a life raft is advisable only when the parent boat is in imminent danger of sinking — the ‘boat is the best lifeboat’ as the saying goes. So it was that the crew of the Trophy came to be in the raft as it tore in two.
Peter Everson and John Puxley were the first to die, swept away as the raft disintegrated. Robin Bowyer would die later of hypothermia, his body lashed to the damaged raft. Simon Fleming was holding on to the other half of the raft and disappeared into the night when it finally tore away completely. Amazingly, he would survive, plucked from the sea by a Royal Navy Sea King.
Early on Tuesday morning, as red distress flares dotted the skies above the stricken fleet and Mayday calls clogged the airwaves, a huge air-sea rescue swung into operation.
Royal Navy (pictured) and RAF Sea King, Wessex and Lynx helicopter crews were scrambled at first light, joined by Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft roaring down from Scotland
Royal Navy and RAF Sea King, Wessex and Lynx helicopter crews were scrambled at first light, joined by Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft roaring down from Scotland. British, Irish and Dutch warships converged on the scene with civilian vessels as 14 lifeboats launched from RNLI stations in Ireland and Cornwall. Some 4,000 people participated in the effort.
The helicopters strained fuel reserves to the limit as they scoured the ocean, remaining aloft for as long as four hours at a time. Winchmen performed hair-raising feats as they plucked victims from life rafts and stricken boats strewn with collapsed rigging that could snag their lines. Some 140 people were rescued by helicopters and other vessels.
Salvation for Derek Morland and the three remaining survivors appeared in the form of a low-flying RAF Nimrod patrol aircraft. The same Sea King that saved Fleming hoisted Bartlett on board but, critically short of fuel, had to depart. Derek and his companions were soon rescued, however, by the Dutch destroyer HNLMS Overijssel, taking part in the biggest rescue operation in British waters in peacetime.
Returning to land, Derek visited John Puxley’s widow Sylvia and her two children.
‘Her daughter came up to me and said: ‘When is daddy coming home?’ I didn’t know what to say. It was terrible.’
Forty years on, at the age of 64, Derek Morland still sails, in the Solent at weekends. His wife, whom he met shortly after the disaster, sails with him; his younger son is also a keen sailor.
The same Sea King that saved Fleming hoisted Bartlett on board but, critically short of fuel, had to depart. Derek and his companions were soon rescued, however, by the Dutch destroyer HNLMS Overijssel (pictured, Dutch servicemen as two coffins are unloaded at Plymouth), taking part in the biggest rescue operation in British waters in peacetime
Many lessons were learned in the wake of the Fastnet disaster. Equipment and training got better and, over time, communications, navigation aids and satellite weather monitoring have improved out of all recognition. But the sea can still be cruel, when the mood takes it.
‘I never dream about it — that night — but it’s always with me,’ says Derek Morland. ‘Simon Fleming sent me a text this week: ‘Forty years ago today’.
In the grounds of Holy Trinity Church, Cowes, stands a memorial to the dead of that terrible storm. In front of it stand stones hewn from the Fastnet Rock, the destination so many never reached.