Nic Compton investigates how the UK’s worst sailing disaster - the 1979 Fastnet Race - changed the way yachts are designed
1979 Fastnet Race: The race that changed everything
‘A soul-chilling surge of fear swept through all of us as we heard the terrifying sound of a breaking wave 40ft above us. In a few seconds the 10ft-high foaming crest was bearing down on us from behind like an avalanche. […] We braced ourselves for the pooping of our lives, but a split second before the onslaught from astern, the bow disappeared as we nosedived into a wall of water in front. […] As the bow submarined into this secondary wave, Grimalkin’s stern rose until it arced over the bow and stood us on our nose. As we approached the vertical, crew were thrown against the back of the coachroof or out of the boat altogether. A split second later and we were hit from astern by the breaking wave and we pitchpoled.’
This is one of the defining moments of the 1979 Fastnet Race when, after having been knocked down multiple times and rolled through 360°, the 30ft Grimalkin was hit by a rogue wave and pitchpoled.
As she went through the roll, her rig collapsed and she remerged with a broken mast and the spars smashing against her topsides.
By then, the boat’s owner, David Sheahan, was dead, floating face down in the sea to windward, and two of the crew were slumped in the cockpit, also apparently dead.
Faced with this carnage, the remaining three crew – including the owner’s son, Matt Sheahan, then only 17, who wrote the passage above – decided to abandon ship and boarded the liferaft.
Only later did they discover that at least one of the crew left on board was still alive – Nick Ward, who went on to tell his tale in his book Left for Dead.
But of course Grimalkin wasn’t the only yacht to have succumbed to the Force 10 winds that ravaged the fleet that year.
By the end of the 1979 Fastnet race, 24 boats had been abandoned, five boats had sunk, 136 sailors had been rescued, and 15 sailors killed.
It was and still is the deadliest yacht race in history – well ahead of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race which left six people dead.
The rescue was described as the biggest peacetime life-saving operation in British history, and its impact has reverberated throughout the yachting world.
It was a wake-up call for the emergency services and triggered a huge push for improved safety equipment.
But how much did it affect the course of boat design, and have the lessons of this deadliest of races really been learned, or is there a danger it could happen all over again?
When the 303 boats gathered for the Fastnet Race on 11 August 1979, racing was still governed by the International Offshore Rule (IOR), first introduced in 1969.
After 10 years of experimentation, designers had found ways of maximising the rule, not always with desirable results.
‘In 1979 all boat racing was done under IOR, but it was already in decline, mainly because designers had found their weaselly way into the rule,’ says the former Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) technical director Mike Urwin, ‘which meant that unless you had the latest and greatest you didn’t stand a chance. The IOR produced boats which wholly optimised the rule but which were opposed to the rules of nature, such as hydrodynamics.’
One of the main complaints about the IOR was that it produced boats which were ‘short on stability’, as Urwin puts it.
The rule contained a Centre of Gravity Factor, which encouraged designers to aim for the minimum stability allowed, bringing ballast inside the boat and even fitting wooden shoes on the bottom of keels to reduce weight.
The result was lightweight boats with wide beams, pinched ends and high freeboards, which in extreme weather had a tendency to roll over and stay over.
Another major failing of the rule was that, as it wasn’t possible to physically weigh them yet, the boats were weighed theoretically by measuring their shape at a series of stations and calculating the overall shape accordingly.
This lead to designers adding all kinds of strange appendages between the stations to increase the waterline length, which in turn meant the hulls became distorted and difficult to steer.
It was an altogether bad state of affairs yet, speaking 40 years after the 1979 Fastnet Race, designer Ron Holland – responsible for dozens of IOR racers, including Grimalkin – defends his and his colleagues’ approach.
‘We were designing boats to the IOR rule, so it wasn’t just boat design, it was trick design. Without those restrictions we would have designed boats that were less distorted and faster, but they wouldn’t have won races under the IOR rules. The racing rule forced us to design narrow sterns, so the boats were tricky to sail downwind: you had to be skilled to stay on your feet – it was all part of the game. We just took the handicap system as it was and designed boats as fast as possible around that – still bearing in mind that if you don’t finish you can’t win and you need structural integrity to keep sailing.’
Lessons from the wreckage of the 1979 Fastnet Race
‘I personally felt bad afterwards, especially because of those people who died. We had never had that before. But the weather was so extreme; the waves were of a size, shape and frequency that I’ve never seen before. I’m convinced that even a Colin Archer would have rolled over in those conditions.’
As the crews licked their wounds and the families mourned their dead in the aftermath of the 1970 Fastnet race, the RYA and the RORC commissioned an inquiry to find out what had gone wrong.
Three questionnaires were sent to the skipper and crews of all 303 yachts, and 669 completed questionnaires were fed into a computer for analysis.
The result was a 74-page report, which looked at everything from weather reporting to marine safety gear, crew experience and tactics, and search and rescue procedures.
Yet, despite recognising that many people felt designers had ‘gone to extremes which surpass the bounds of common sense’ in their quest for speed, the section on boat design is relatively short: less than three pages out of a 74-page report.
Indeed, the authors seem to go along with the ‘consensus of opinion’ that it was ‘the severity of the conditions rather than any defect in the design of the boats’, which was the main cause of the problem – all the while noting that 48% of the fleet had been knocked to horizontal, 33% had gone beyond horizontal, and five boats had spent between 30 seconds and six minutes fully inverted.
The report didn’t bother investigating knockdowns to horizontal (so-called B1 knockdowns) because it considered that these ‘have always been a potential danger in cruising and offshore racing yachts in heavy seas’, so they regarded them as normal.
Buried in the appendices was a technical report comparing the stability of a Contessa 32 Assent– the only boat in the smallest class to complete the course – and a ‘1976 Half Tonner’ (generally assumed to be Grimalkin).
The report showed the Contessa had a range of stability of 156° compared to just 117° for the Half Tonner, making the latter far more likely to stay inverted.
Despite these concerns, the report made few recommendations for changes in yacht design, apart from suggesting the RORC should consider changing its measurement rules and make it possible to exclude boats ‘whose design parameters may indicate a lack of stability’.
The overwhelming weight of the report, however, was about the weather, improving safety gear on boats and better procedures for search and rescue.
It concluded: ‘In the 1979 race the sea showed that it can be a deadly enemy and that those who go to sea for pleasure must do so in the full knowledge that they may encounter dangers of the highest order. However, provided that the lessons so harshly taught in this race are well learnt we feel that yachts should continue to race over the Fastnet course.’
Yet, despite this, racing rules did change.
From 1983, the Channel Handicap System (CHS) was introduced, initially alongside IOR and eventually, as the renamed International Rating Certificate (IRC), supplanting it.
The new rule encouraged a low centre of gravity by not penalising ballast in the keel.
Also, thanks to advances in technology, it was now possible to weigh boats which, according to Mike Urwin, ‘at a stroke’ stopped designers distorting the hull to get better rating – gone were the unseemly bumps and creases of IOR boats – and resulted in ‘more wholesome boats which were easier to handle’.
There were other changes.
Thus an inboard engine scored more highly than an outboard, and a sturdy, simple rig was favoured over the complex spiders webs of many IOR boats.
Trisails and VHF radios became mandatory.
In due course, competitors were required to complete shorter, qualifying races before they were allowed to race in the Fastnet, and a certain percentage of the crew were expected to have a sea survival certificate.
And Urwin points to another way the 1979 Fastnet Race has improved boat safety.
When it came to devising an ISO standard for yacht construction in the UK in the 1990s, the starting point for stability was the SSS system produced by the RORC.
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The resulting ISO 12217-2 (which Urwin calls a ‘gold standard for stability’) is now not only used to qualify for RORC offshore races such as the Fastnet, but is used by most British designers to pass the EU’s Recreational Craft Directive rules.
Even more significantly, perhaps, the tragedy prompted a change of attitude, according to former ROCR race director Janet Grosvenor.
‘The 1979 Fastnet was the trigger that started a greater awareness of safety issues in sailing that exists today,’ she says.
‘You can see it in people’s ordinary lives and their perception of safety. Young people nowadays turn up with their own lifejacket, which they know fits them and is up to date, whereas before they used to all be provided by the boat. It’s a mindset. We are living in a more health and safety conscious world these days.’
The new approach came to the fore in 2007 when, for the first time in its 82-year history, the start of the race was delayed after the Met Office warned of extreme conditions in the Irish Sea, similar to 1979.
In her role as race director, Grosvenor delayed the start by 25 hours, ensuring the bulk of the fleet was still in the English Channel when the storm hit and could retire safely if necessary.
And retire they did, with 207 of the 271-strong fleet taking shelter in ports along the south coast.
For Grosvenor, the fact that no boats capsized and no lives were lost was a vindication of this new attitude.
Lasting legacy of the 1979 Fastnet Race
Matt Sheahan’s experiences during the 1979 Fastnet Race affected him for the rest of his life and sparked a personal crusade.
After studying Yacht Design at Southampton University, he worked at Proctor Masts before eventually joining Yachting World as racing editor.
In his guise as chief boat tester, he conducted a campaign to make yacht manufacturers more open about stability.
‘I was determined to include stability information with all our boat tests. I wasn’t trying to change the world or say there should be set limits, it was just about getting people to understand the issue and know what their boat is suitable for. When you sail an Ultra 30, with eight crew and minimal ballast, you know if you get it wrong you’ll be swimming and the boat will probably capsize. That’s ok, it’s a calculated risk taken by experienced sailors. What’s not acceptable is when you have a cruising family who don’t have much experience and just want a boat for weekend cruising, and you sell them a boat which is capable of capsizing if it heels beyond 100° or 105° – which is the case with many boats by the time you put all the extra bits of kit on the mast. But people aren’t aware.’
As ever, suitability of a boat for a specific use is key.
It is important that buyers understand what a boat is suitable for and what it is not. So, are boats safer now than they were in 1979?
There’s little doubt that the advances in safety equipment, clothing and building materials have improved sailors’ chances of survival in extreme weather conditions.
And there are signs that designers are producing more seaworthy designs than before.
Conditions in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race were said to be at least as bad as in the 1979 Fastnet Race, yet only 18% of the 115 boats in the race had B1 knockdowns and only 3% had B2 knockdowns – compared to 48% and 33% in the Fastnet.
Heed the warnings
But Sheahan is cautious: ‘What worries me is that the lessons from the 1979 Fastnet get forgotten. Most yachts have better stability characteristics now, partly because of regulations but also because they are generally getting bigger, so they have more form stability anyway. But by the time you add in mast-furling, furling staysails, and all the other bits of kit on the mast, the centre of gravity starts to creep up and you have a problem again. There’s a trend to make cruising boats look like fancy hotel foyers down below, to make them more appealing to the family. But the minute the boat heels over, it’s a nightmare to get across. With nothing to hold onto, someone’s going to get hurt. There’s also a move towards fine bows and over-wide sterns, making boats harder to steer downwind. So stability might be better, but the handling is getting worse.’
Urwin also thinks we are far from immune from a repeat of 1979.
‘With the best will in the world we can’t forecast exactly what weather is going to do. If it happens again, modern boats are less likely to get into trouble, and if they do get into trouble the safety equipment is much better. We have by various means, some directly related to the 1979 Fastnet, improved the design of boats so they are more seaworthy. But never say never. With climate change creating extreme weather, it could happen again.’
The truth is that boat design is always going to be a compromise between speed and safety and that no boat is guaranteed to survive all weather conditions.
And one thing that becomes clear from all the first-hand accounts of the 1979 Fastnet Race is that the conditions were beyond anything competitors had encountered before.
Today’s sailors would do well not to assume that modern boats could survive any better than those flawed boats of 40 years ago.
As Ron Holland puts it: ‘If a fleet of boats racing on the Solent was hit by that Fastnet storm, they would still find it difficult to steer and the result wouldn’t be that different. I’ve done a lot of miles at sea but I’ve never seen conditions like that.’
Sailors take heed.
Stability research after the 1979 Fastnet Race
The Fastnet disaster prompted the Wolfson Unit at Southampton University to undertake detailed research into the causes of B1 (90°) and B2 (full inversion) knockdowns.
Its conclusions were striking.
- yacht with a stability range of 150° or more, like a Contessa 32 (pictured), will not remain inverted after capsize, as the wave motion alone is enough to bring it back up.
- If the wave height is 60% or more than the length of the boat, then capsize is almost inevitable, therefore, smaller yachts are more liable to be capsized than bigger ones.
- The Wolfson Unit also found that a yacht which has a stability range of 127° when fitted with conventional sails drops to an alarming 96° when fitted with in-mast mainsail and roller-furling genoa.
The 1979 Fastnet Inquiry also highlighted several ‘weaknesses’ in relation to yacht construction.
Many rudders failed during the race due to the weakness of the carbon fibre used in the construction.
The report authors highlighted that although emergency steering would only give ‘minimum directional control’ it was important it would work to get a yacht safely to harbour.
The design and construction of main companionways was ‘the most serious defect’ affecting watertight integrity.
The inquiry recommended that blocking arrangements should be totally secure but openable from above and below decks.
Bilge pumps should also discharge overboard and not into the cockpit, unless the cockpit is open-ended.
Many of the crews found it too dangerous below decks as their yachts rolled due to insecure equipment, like batteries, becoming flying ‘missiles’.
The stowage arrangements in some boats were designed to be effective only up to 90° angle of heel.
The inquiry found cockpit drainage arrangement in some of the boats was ‘inadequate’, and called for a requirement for cockpits to drain within a minimum time.
The report also highlighted the problems with yachts under tow, and recommended a requirement for a strong securing point on the foredeck and a bow fairlead for anchor cable and towing warp.
The report also called for adequate toe-rails to be fitted, especially forward of the mast.
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