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Fastnet 40th Anniversary Irish Lightkeeper Attends Memorial Service & Former Baltimore Lifeboat Returns to West Cork

2nd August 2019
Former Fastnet lighthouse keeper Gerald Butler Former Fastnet lighthouse keeper Gerald Butler

Former Fastnet lighthouse keeper Gerald Butler is due to represent fellow Irish light keepers at a memorial service for 1979 Fastnet Yacht Race on the Isle of Wight this evening writes  Lorna Siggins

Former RNLI Baltimore vessel, The Robert, which was one of four Irish lifeboats involved in the Fastnet race rescue, is also returning to the West Cork harbour to remember its role in the Fastnet race rescues.

A total of 19 people, including two sailors with Irish connections, died after storm force 10 winds hit the race 40 years ago next week.

Almost 3,000 competitors and spectators were sailing the 605 nautical mile course from the Isle of Wight to the Fastnet lighthouse and back to Plymouth when conditions changed dramatically on the night of August 13th, 1979.

The ferocity of the storm had not been forecast in time, and there was minimal communication and no satellite technology on the yachts – with even the best equipped unable to deal with 50-60 knot winds.

Among the 132 sailors rescued by Royal Navy and RAF helicopters, RNLI lifeboat crews and the Naval Service ship LÉ Deirdre were competitors on 18 Irish yachts - including a then-winning Irish Admiral’s Cup team.

RNLI Baltimore coxswain Kieran Cotter was a crew member with coxswain Christy Collins onboard The Robert, along with voluntary crews from Ballycotton, Courtmacsherry and Dunmore East lifeboats over a period of 75 hours.

The Robert, a Watson 47 class vessel taken out of service and sold by the RNLI in 1991, was recently retrieved by Glasgow-based businessman Jeff Houlgrave, who restored it and steamed with two crew from Scotland to Crosshaven, Co Cork.

The Robert leaves Crosshaven today (fri) for Baltimore, and will be met by the current lifeboat as it arrives into the harbour.

“The extraordinary men who went out to sea in 1979 had far less equipment than vessels now, and it is the least we can do to save this past heritage,” Mr Houlgrave said.

On the Fastnet lighthouse, Gerald Butler and colleagues Reggie Sugrue and Louis Cronin battled the winds and waves leaping up to the balcony during the 1979 storm to record sail numbers.

They then reported them back to Mizen Head which relayed the information to the race organisers in Cowes.

“I am very honoured to be representing lightkeepers and recognise the role they played in sea safety over several centuries before automation,” Mr Butler said.

Commissioners of Irish Lights deputy commissioner Kieran Crowley has also been invited to the memorial service hosted by the Royal Ocean Racing Club in Cowes on the eve of this year’s Fastnet yacht race start.

Further up the Atlantic seaboard, Clifden, Co Galway, has become the first west coast RNLI station to receive a new Shannon-class lifeboat.

The all-weather Shannon, which was designed by an Irish engineer and is the first RNLI class to be named after an Irish river, was given a warm welcome by several hundred people at Clifden Quay on Wednesday.

Named the Brianne Aldington, the 13-metre Shannon reduces response times to call-outs, as it has a top speed of 25 knots. It replaces the Mersey-class 15 knot vessel at Clifden, and represents a 2.4 million euro investment by the RNLI in the west coast.

The Shannon was designed by Derry man Peter Eyre who as a child was rescued by Lough Swilly RNLI in Donegal. It has an endurance of 250 nautical miles and is powered by waterjets, rather than propellers.

Clifden RNLI coxswain James Mullen recalled how delivering the vessel from RNLI headquarters in Poole, Dorset, was one of his proudest moments.

“ As we rounded Loop Head we hit a bit of weather and we really made her dance,” he said.

There are currently two Shannon-class lifeboats at Lough Swilly in Donegal and Clogherhead, Co Louth, and a relief vessel at the Wicklow station.

Published in Fastnet
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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RORC Fastnet Race

This race is both a blue riband international yachting fixture and a biennial offshore pilgrimage that 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 for 2021 is in Cherbourg 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 Cherbourg.

Fastnet Race - FAQs

The 49th edition of the biennial Rolex Fastnet Race will start from the Royal Yacht Squadron line in Cowes, UK on Sunday 8th August 2021.

The next two editions of the race in 2021 and 2023 will finish in Cherbourg-en-Cotentin at the head of the Normandy peninsula, France

Over 300. A record fleet is once again anticipated for the world's largest offshore yacht race.

The international fleet attracts both enthusiastic amateur, the seasoned offshore racer, as well as out-and-out professionals from all corners of the world.

Boats of all shapes, sizes and age take part in this historic race, from 9m-34m (30-110ft) – and everything in between.

The Fastnet Race multihull course record is: 1 day 4 hours 2 minutes and 26 seconds (2019, Ultim Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, Franck Cammas / Charles Caudrelier)

The Fastnet Race monohull course record is: 1 day, 18 hours, 39 minutes (2011, Volvo 70, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing).

David and Peter Askew's American VO70 Wizard won the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race, claiming the Fastnet Challenge Cup for 1st in IRC Overall.

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.

The winner of the first Fastnet Race was the former pilot cutter Jolie Brise, a boat that is still sailing today.

Cork sailor Henry P F Donegan (1870-1940), who gave his total support for the Fastnet Race from its inception in 1925 and competed in the inaugural race in his 43ft cutter Gull from Cork.

Ireland has won the Fastnet Race twice. In 1987 the Dubois 40 Irish Independent won the Fastnet Race overall for the first time and then in 2007 – all of twenty years after Irish Independent’s win – Ireland secured the overall win again this time thanks to Ger O’Rourke’s Cookson 50 Chieftain from the Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland in Kilrush.

©Afloat 2020

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Fastnet Race 2021 Date

The 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race will start on Sunday 8th August 2021.

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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