Fastnet 1979: 45 years ago sailing’s greatest tragedy

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A British Navy Sea King helicopter rescues the crew of the Camargue during the storm that hit the 1979 Fastnet fleet in the Irish Sea.

Fastnet 1979. Twenty boats sunk, 19 dead, 4,000 rescuers at work. We retrace, 45 years later, the story of the terrible offshore race with the testimony of the man who found himself struggling in the Irish Sea storm: Riccardo Bonadeo.

Fastnet 1979. A tragedy foretold?

Forty-five years have passed since that fateful night when the greatest tragedy in contemporary sailing took place.

Between August 13 and 14, 1979, all hell broke loose on the more than 350 participants in the Fastnet (the fifth of five offshore races of the Admiral’s Cup, starting in Cowes, Solent, rounding the Fastnet Rock in southern Ireland and finishing in Plymouth for a total of about 600 miles): force 11 seas, winds over 70 knots (130 km/h). 20 boats sank and 19 sailors lost their lives; there were 194 retirements in total.

What was supposed to be a normal, challenging offshore race turned into an inferno, forcing the British Navy into the most massive rescue operation ever carried out by the Navy in peacetime and involving 4,000 personnel including the entire fleet of the Irish Naval Service, lifeboats, commercial vessels and Sea King helicopters (created for the war on submarines and later converted to sea rescue).

Fastnet, every sailor’s dream

“Climbing the crest of a wave,one had the impression of being taller than the lighthouse on the Fastnet Rock.” Speaking is Riccardo Bonadeo, owner of the successful Rrose Sélavy series of boats.

He was there. Our “witness” is Riccardo Bonadeo, 84. He participated in the legendary 1979 Fastnet, headed the consortium of Azzurra, the first Italian America’s Cup challenge in 1983. With his boats (all named Rrose Selavy) he was a two-time winner of the Maxi Yacht Cup (1995-2000) and a five-time winner of the Mouths Week. He has served as commodore of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda and is currently president of One Ocean Foundation.

He, at the 1979 Fastnet, was there with his 43-foot (13-meter) Doug Peterson-designed boat, and the experience he had was indelibly etched in his mind. “The Fastnet, back then,” says the Milanese owner, “was the icon of Atlantic adventures, the dream of every sailor. In fact, not only the crews of the Admiral’s Cup (which constituted, in fact, the three-boat team offshore world championship: representing Italy, along with Rrose Sélavy, were Sergio Doni’s first class Yena – also a Peterson design – and Vanni Mandelli’s Vanina, designed by Kaufman, ed.), but many boats of enthusiasts, experienced and less experienced, already engaged in Cowes Week.”

fastnet 1979
Above, the IOR Class I Rrose Selavy with which Riccardo Bonadeo took part in the 1979 Fastnet: 13 meters (43 feet) long, it was the former Moonshine designed by Doug Peterson.

In addition, many British people had not entered the race but were running off the leaderboard. In addition to the 57 participants in Admiral’s, there were in fact about sixty fifth-class boats and about two hundred independent hulls at the start, for a total of nearly 350 crews. This ‘crowding’ was the source of the great confusion in the storm that made rescue operations even more difficult. “The ‘amateurs’ made them leave before us on August 11,” Bonadeo explains.

The weather was not the best

“The weather forecast announced that there was a strong trough in the North Atlantic heading eastward, but we race in all conditions over there, and since previous editions had been given the start in much worse weather, the organization had no qualms.” At first, the regatta proceeded normally. After leaving Cowes, the boats skirted Cornwall.

But it was just to the west of Cornwall that the weather conditions incurred several changes, concentrated in a few hours. First the fog, then the becalmed and a ‘fiery’ sunset, then the wind turn and strengthen. Continues Bonadeo: “I remember we also encountered becalmed conditions: the strong contrary current forced many participants, including us, to give bottom in order not to retreat. Some moored themselves near a large rock with a spur and waited out the wind with umbrellas and deck chairs.”

The lighthouse on the Fastnet Rock, Ireland’s southernmost point, the quintessential romantic symbol of ocean sailing.

Fastnet 1979. Swept up in the storm

After five hours at anchor Rrose Sélavy set off again: the wind picked up in intensity and turned, from northeast to southwest: “I remember it suddenly increased, we had on full mainsail and a genoa 3 and we were caught unprepared.” Bonadeo’s crew consisted of great sailors, certainly no slouches: the navigator was Englishman Ross Walker, at the helm was Star ’76 world champion James ‘Jim’ Alsopp. And then the brothers Chicco and Conny Isenburg. “Too much, too much canvas,” wrote Jacopo Marchi, who was part of the crew in ‘A Regatta. A Tragedy. The 1979 Fastnet’.

“The boat was spinning like a top, knocking us into each other, while everyone on deck was scrambling to try to harness the mainsail and jib to lower them just in time. Finally, dry of sails, in the deafening din, had come the voice of Ross, our impeccable English navigator: ‘Ricardo…make sure everybody on board! Christ!’ (Ricardo, make sure everybody is on board! Christ!). There is a margin, a thin margin, that divides in those moments tragedy from a quick run home; the boat is like a yo-yo, tied by a thin thread, held by the Eternal Father. In those moments you remember to pray.”

The boat lying without a mainsail, the spreaders in the water, the wind whistling at 70 knots. Prayers, okay, but no panic: “The whole crew was great: after about an hour the worst was over and we could leave. With the storm jib (a small storm jib, ed.) we reached the Fastnet on the slack, port tack. If at first the sea was ‘only’ rough, near the lighthouse, where the bottom is shallower, the waves turned into real oceanic hills tens of meters high. The breakers prevented us from tacking; we were able to do so only after a while, with the mainsail down.”

A dramatic moment of the regatta, helicopter rescues at the Grimalkin
By David Sheahan: Of the six crew members, only four survived.

“We were survivors.”

Once the turn was made, the return toward Plymouth began. “We still didn’t know what happened to the fleet and the boats that left before us. I remember sharing my berth with Walker (the Rrose Sélavy was a 43-footer, the crew was nine, and below deck we took turns): when it was my turn to rest in the cabin I ‘stole’ Ross’s headphones to listen to the radio. I heard the death toll continuing to rise. First four, then six, then nine, then… ‘The Irish Sea is a graveyard of boats’. There we realized that it had been really tough, that we had been lucky, up to that point we had gotten away with it. We were all fine, no one had ended up in the water: only Conny Isenburg was seasick lying in the bilge.”

Bonadeo and his crew, at that point, resumed thinking about the regatta: “At one point we got into a kind of concentric double rainbow. He was the eye of the storm. The wind dropped significantly, down to 25 knots, which seemed like a breeze at the time. We hoisted a gennaker walled up like a spi, looked over our shoulders, and saw many more blooming: out of the eye the wind started blowing hard again, but not like before. We easily arrived at the Isles of Scilly, where the weather cleared allowing us to finish the race without any problems. For the record, our team, thanks in part to the Fastnet results, finished in third place in the Admiral’s Cup.”

Writes Bonadeo in the aforementioned preface to Marchi’s book, “It had gone well for us, we had crossed the finish line at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, under spinnaker and boil, on the only real sunny day of the entire series (i.e., Admiral’s trials, ed.): it seemed to me that something magnificent was ending and not coming out of a nightmare. Instead we found the nightmare ashore, it was on the faces of the crowd on the dock, so quiet and so different from the one that had greeted us in Cowes at the start of the Fastnet.”

Don’t abandon the boat!

Only on the ground, therefore, was the true extent of the damage realized: “Most of the deaths had been caused by panic: people had abandoned their boats by throwing themselves overboard on rafts. There is an old English proverb that goes ‘All the water of the world, however hard it tries, will never sink a ship, unless it got inside’ (‘All the water in the world, however hard it tries and tries, will never sink a boat, unless it got inside,’ ed.): unless it is making water, the boat is the safest place to stay during a storm.”

This was well known by the experienced teams running for the Admiral’s Cup, among whom no deaths were recorded. “In these cases, more than anything else, it was difficult for the helicopter rescuers to convince crew members to jump into the water to be rescued by ladder, an otherwise impossible task between trees and rigging.” Bonadeo’s version is corroborated by testimony that Arthur Moss, skipper of Camargue, a boat rescued and brought back to Plymouth by a French fishing boat, gave to the Journal of Sailing: “I couldn’t get my men to jump into the water so they could be picked up by helicopters, I had to push them. But when it was my turn, I waited quite a while before I gathered courage.”.

Eugene Ruocco


Focus. That storm that was misannounced

How was the frightening storm created that was unleashed on the Fastnet fleet in the Irish Sea? A “collision” between two disturbances was to blame. Weather reports predicted a low-pressure vortex from the west, rapidly transiting: the low pressure, of 1,010 millibars, was not expected to pose a serious risk to the racing hulls. The forecast spoke of sustained gusts up to 33 knots in the area surrounding the Fastnet. Difficult conditions, but not really dangerous.

What was given little importance at the time, in the bulletins radioed to the crews, was that the disturbance from the west, all in all a minor one, had a consistent chance of colliding with another, slower and deeper depression stationed further north. And that, in fact, was what happened. On the evening of August 13, the two eddies of depression merged, the resulting depression center ‘collapsing’ to a minimum of 990 millibars, generating a frightening storm with winds of more than 70 knots, made all the more dangerous by hill-high waves amplified by the shallow water around the Fastnet Rock.

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