It was when the Baltimore Lifeboat was called on the evening of Monday, August 13th 1979 to the assistance of the yacht Regardless that the outside world began to realize that something exceptional was happening to the record 303-boat Fastnet Race fleet writes W M Nixon. With a gathering gale, other yachts were already in difficulties. But as the gale developed into a storm, the call came from Ken Rohan’s Regardless - star boat in the then-winning three-boat Irish Admirals Cup team - that her high-tech carbon fibre rudder stock had broken clean off at sea south of Toe Head.
With one of the most experienced crews of all the boats on board, the fact that Regardless had sought help moved the scenario onto a new level. The Baltimore lifeboat, The Robert, was at sea under Cox’n Christie Collins with a very young Kieran Cotter in her crew, and when she found the disabled Regardless being tossed about like a cork, it took six attempts to get a towline aboard, but after that the fallen star was towed safely into Baltimore, and The Robert put back to sea on other related missions.
Several other lifeboats from along Ireland’s south coast and the boats from St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly and St Ives on the Cornish mainland, together with helicopters and ships, were also to be involved in the huge rescue effort which saved 132 lives. Yet despite their best efforts, there were to be 19 tragic losses in this exceptional storm, a situation which was to be analysed in several ways – including official reports – in its aftermath.
But gradually life returned to normal, and over the years the recollection of the storm of 1979 has seen the Baltimore Lifeboat, - which had been at sea for longer than any others - becoming the symbol of all the lifeboats involved, a situation which was reinforced when one of her successors, now with Kieran Cotter as Cox’n, played a central role in the rescue of the crew of George David’s super-maxi Rambler 100 when her keel snapped off at the Fastnet Rock in the race of 2011.
Meanwhile, The Robert, ON 955 and a classic Watson 47, was sliding gently into retirement and obscurity when she was discovered by Jeff Houlgrave. He may be best known on the big boat circuit for his involvement with Marina Projects and as Chairman of Superyacht UK, but one of his intriguing hobbies is the restoration of vintage lifeboats, and with The Robert
he found something very near to his heart.
It has to be confessed that when he signalled that this restoration was getting underway last year, the feeling was that time was tight enough to be ready for the big 40th at Baltimore in August. But we were able to put him in touch with Kieran Cotter, still the much-decorated Cox’n of Baltimore Lifeboat, to see what might happen early in August 2019, and last night the signal came through that the superbly restored Robert is now in Crosshaven, and will be heading towards Baltimore on Friday. Clearly, when Jeff Houlgrave gets going on a project, he doesn’t mess about.
With the re-jigging of the international programme such that the Rolex Fastnet Race 2019 start on Saturday 3rd August precedes Cowes Week (10th August – 17th August) for the first time ever, there’s no way any Fastnet racers will be in the region of The Rock on August 13th and 14th, the precise date of the 40th Anniversary of the rescues. But in Baltimore a programme is being developed to reflect the current schedule’s reality while properly respecting the solemn significance of the event.
For of all ports, it is Baltimore where the lifeboat crews and the sailing community are most intimately intertwined. Thus in the Beaufort Cup Series within Volvo Cork Week last year, the Lifeboat Service was represented by Baltimore with Deputy Cox’n Youen Jacob skippering their J/109 to such good effect that at times they were leading the very competitive fleet, and at the end it was so close that the theoretical winner, Commandant Barry Byrne with the Defence Forces crew on John Maybury’s J/109 Joker 2, reckoned that as he and his crew were given the choice of which charity their €10,000 prize should go to, they should divide it between the Children’s Hospital and Irish Lifeboats. That’s the way it is in Baltimore.