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Fastnet Storm 1979: Today is the Most Poignant in Remembering the Sequence of the Tragedy

15th August 2019
The Watson 47 lifeboat The Robert, heroine of the 1979 Fastnet Storm, as she is today - restored by Jeff Houlgrave The Watson 47 lifeboat The Robert, heroine of the 1979 Fastnet Storm, as she is today - restored by Jeff Houlgrave

It was the 15th August 1979 by the time the full horror of the effects of the Fastnet Race storm had become apparent writes W M Nixon, and today is the most quietly poignant in 2019’s sequence of recollection and commemoration. It is a sequence which began with the Memorial Service in Holy Trinity Church in Cowes on the evening of Friday 2nd August before the 2019 Fastnet Race got under way at noon next day, and it will conclude with a Service of Commemoration on Cape Clear this coming Sunday, with the restored Baltimore RNLI Lifeboat of 1979’s heroic rescues, the Watson 47 The Robert which has been restored by Jeff Houlgrave, the most honoured craft among those visiting the island.

At Afloat.ie in recent weeks, we have covered the Fastnet events of forty years ago in considerable and developing detail. But today is one for quiet contemplation. We salute long-serving Cox’n Kieran Cotter and his crew of Baltimore lifeboat who put in the longest service of any of the rescue organisations, we salute all others involved in the large and complex international rescue operation, and we remember the 19 who were lost their lives, and their families and friends and shipmates.

Most poignant of all is that four of those who died were only accompanying the Fastnet Race. Such was the special nature of the race that some sailing enthusiasts felt sufficiently rewarded by simply sailing in the vicinity of the fleet, and they were to pay with their lives for their their fascination with this extraordinary event. All 19 names are commemorated in a plaque in Holy Trinity Church in Cowes, and a Memorial Stone on Cape Clear. They are remembered today, and they will be remembered again on Cape Clear with a special height of emotion within sight of the Fastnet Rock on Sunday.

kieran cotter2 Kieran Cotter, longtime Cox’n of the Baltimore Lifeboat

Published in Fastnet
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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