Nineteen people lose their lives during the 1979 Fastnet Race, which begins on August 11, 1979. The race is the 28th 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 is the climax of the five-race Admiral’s Cup competition, as it has been since 1957.
A worse-than-expected storm on the third day of the race wreaks havoc on over 303 yachts that started the biennial race resulting in 24 yachts being abandoned, of which five are lost and believed to be sunk due to high winds and severe sea conditions. The nineteen fatalities consist of fifteen yachtsmen and four spectators.
Rescue efforts begin after 6:30 AM on August 14, once the winds drop to severe gale Force 9 on the Beaufort scale. Emergency services, naval forces, and civilian vessels from around the west side of the English Channel are summoned to aid what becomes the largest ever rescue operation in peace-time. This involves some 4,000 people, including the entire Irish Naval Service‘s fleet, lifeboats, commercial boats, tugs, trawlers, tankers and helicopters.
The handicap winner is the yacht Tenacious, designed by Sparkman & Stephens, owned and skippered by Ted Turner. The winner on elapsed time in the race is the 77-foot Condor of Bermuda, skippered by Peter Blake, which gains around 90 minutes on the leader at the Fastnet rock, the Kialoa IV, by chancing a spinnaker. Jim Kilroy of the Kialoa IV has broken his ribs and there is damage to the yacht’s runners. Condor of Bermuda breaks the Fastnet record by nearly eight hours (71h 25m 23s).
The disaster results in a major rethink of racing, risks and prevention.
(Pictured: Memorial to those who died in the 1979 Fastnet Race, Lissarnona, Cape Clear Island, Cork, Ireland)