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The Fastnet Race Losses of 1979 to be Remembered in Cowes Forty Years On

26th June 2019
The Fastnet Race memorial service notice issued by the RORC The Fastnet Race memorial service notice issued by the RORC

The atmosphere in Cowes in the days leading up to the start of the Fastnet Race inevitably provides a heightening sense of anticipation and tension writes W M Nixon. And for 2019’s race on Saturday, August 3rd, there is an added intensity of emotion, as it marks the 40th Anniversary of the storm-struck race of 1979 which resulted in a total of 19 deaths.

In solemn acknowledgement of this, and in memory of those lost – some of whose former shipmates will be sailing in this year’s race – a special 40th Anniversary Service will be held the evening before the race in the “Sailors’ Church” in Cowes, Holy Trinity Parish Church, which overlooks the Royal Yacht Squadron starting line from which the Fastnet fleet traditionally starts its race westward.

squadron castle holy trinity2The Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes with Holy Trinity Church beyond

To be held on Friday, August 2nd at 1800 hrs, the service will be in the church which has the Memorial to those lost in August 1979, while there’s another Memorial Stone on Cape Clear Island, the nearest land to the Fastnet Rock itself.

There will be other memorial ceremonies in Baltimore and West Cork. But it’s highly appropriate that the sequence of remembering and honouring those lost should begin where this fateful event, which they had so keenly anticipated as a great sea adventure, finally got underway in the time-honoured flurry of excitement forty long years ago.

fastnet memorial3The 1979 Fastnet memorial in Holy Trinity. David Sheahan and Gerald Winks – lost from the Half Tonner Grimalkin – were both originally from Ireland
Fastnet cape clear memorial4The Cape Clear Memorial stone is an eloquent reminder that the nearby Fastnet Rock is very much of West Cork

Published in Fastnet, RORC
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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The Rolex Fastnet Race - This biennial offshore pilgrimage attracts crews from all walks of life:- from aspiring sailors to professional crews; all ages and all professions. Some are racing for charity, others for a personal challenge. For the world's top professional sailors, it is a 'must-do' race. For some, it will be their first-ever race, and for others, something they have competed in for over 50 years! The race attracts the most diverse fleet of yachts, from beautiful classic yachts to some of the fastest racing machines on the planet – and everything in between.  The testing course passes eight famous landmarks along the route: The Needles, Portland Bill, Start Point, the Lizard, Land’s End, the Fastnet Rock, Bishop’s Rock off the Scillies and Plymouth breakwater (now Cherbourg for 2021 and 2023). After the start in Cowes, the fleet heads westward down The Solent, before exiting into the English Channel at Hurst Castle. The finish is in Plymouth, Devon via the Fastnet Rock, off the southern tip of Ireland

  • The leg across the Celtic Sea to (and from) the Fastnet Rock is known to be unpredictable and challenging. The competitors are exposed to fast-moving Atlantic weather systems and the fleet often encounter tough conditions
  • Flawless decision-making, determination and total commitment are the essential requirements. Crews have to manage and anticipate the changing tidal and meteorological conditions imposed by the complex course
  • The symbol of the race is the Fastnet Rock, located off the southern coast of Ireland. Also known as the Teardrop of Ireland, the Rock marks an evocative turning point in the challenging race
  • Once sailors reach the Fastnet Rock, they are well over halfway to the finish in Plymouth. The lighthouse first shone its light on New Year’s Day in 1854
  • Fastnet Rock originally had six keepers (now unmanned), with four on the rock at a time with the other two on leave. Each man did four weeks on, two weeks off

At A Glance – Fastnet Race

  • The world's largest offshore yacht race
  • The biennial race is 605 nautical miles - Cowes, Fastnet Rock, Plymouth
  • A fleet of over 400 yachts regularly will take part
  • The international fleet is made up of over 26 countries
  • Multihull course record: 1 day, 8 hours, 48 minutes (2011, Banque Populaire V)
  • Monohull course record: 1 day, 18 hours, 39 minutes (2011, Volvo 70, Abu Dhabi)
  • Largest IRC Rated boat is the 100ft (30.48m) Scallywag 100 (HKG)
  • Some of the Smallest boats in the fleet are 30 footers
  • Rolex SA has been a longstanding sponsor of the race since 2001
  • The first race was in 1925 with 7 boats. The Royal Ocean Racing Club was set up as a result

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