Allianz and Afloat - Supporting Irish Boating

Ireland's sailing, boating & maritime magazine

In association with ISA Logo Irish Sailing

Fastnet 1979 Irish Survivors' Reunion Remembers Those Who Died & Pays Tribute to Rescue Agencies

12th October 2019
April English, widow of the renowned professional yachtsman Joe English, who sailed on board Moonduster in the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race, at a wreath-laying ceremony near Howth commemorating the 40th anniversary of the tragedy April English, widow of the renowned professional yachtsman Joe English, who sailed on board Moonduster in the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race, at a wreath-laying ceremony near Howth commemorating the 40th anniversary of the tragedy Photo: Moya Nolan

When an “explosion of a storm” tore its way through the Fastnet yacht race off the Irish coast 40 years ago, there were those among the survivors who could not speak about the experience for years writes Lorna Siggins

However, over 100 sailors, rescuers and relatives of Fastnet ’79 competitors were not quite so lost for words in Howth Yacht Club, north Dublin yesterday as they gathered to remember the event.

The first full reunion of crews among Irish yachts involved in the race began with a wreath-laying at sea by the RNLI Howth lifeboat in memory of those who died.

Although the official death toll in the yacht race was initially stated at 15, and then 19, the actual figure is 21, according to Commodore John Kavanagh, now retired from the Naval Service, who was in command of the LÉ Deirdre patrol ship during the rescue effort.

Cdr Kavanagh recalled how two of the fatalities were a young couple who had joined a spectator boat, Buck’s Fizz, in Cowes shortly before the Fastnet race start from the southern English coast on August 11th, 1979.

“When we picked up that upturned catamaran, all four crew had lost their lives – but the bodies of the young couple were never actually found,” he said.

“There will never be a storm like that again – only because now we rely on sophisticated forecasting and real-time information about its progress,” Cdr Kavanagh observed.

Drawing on photographs taken by one of his ship’s crew, he recalled the LÉ Deirdre’s role in locating yachts, after the ship’s barograph measuring atmospheric pressure fell by 25 millibars in the space of ten hours.

RNLI Baltimore lifeboat coxswain Kieran Cotter, who was a crew member out on rescues for up to 75 hours in 60-knot winds, and lightkeeper Gerald Butler, who had been stationed on the Fastnet, were among the guests at the event organised by Kevin Burke, Kieran Jameson and Brian Lennon.

Kevin Burke was on board the Rapparee, a nine-metre (30 ft) Shamrock, designed by Ron Holland, which rolled over to 180 degrees at one point – and eventually made it into Dunmore East, Co Waterford.

His fellow crew, navigator John Marrow and Enda O’Coineen, recalled how they managed to communicate with an RAF helicopter by Motorola hand-held radio, and only knew the full extent of the disaster when the pilot informed them he had “bodies to pick up”.

The 18 Irish-flagged 1979 Fastnet yachts represented yesterday included crews from Cork vessels Golden Apple of the Sun owned by the late Hugh Coveney, Wild Goose, Moonduster, Irish Mist 111, Tom O’Shanter and Clayton Love Junior's Silver Apple of the Moon.

Michael O’Leary, who had been on Golden Leigh, was among crews from ten Dublin yachts at the event, while Donal McClement, RAF search and rescue pilot sailing on Black Arrow and Sally O’Leary, crew on the British-flagged yacht Yeoman XXI, also attended.

Journalist Winkie Nixon paid tribute to the rescue agencies, including RNLI lifeboats from the Scilly Isles and Penlee in Britain, from Baltimore, Ballycotton and Courtmacsherry in Co Cork and Dunmore East, Co Waterford .

They spent up to 75 hours at sea in what was described as the largest ever peace-time maritime rescue operation, along with the Naval Service, the Royal Navy, Dutch Navy, US Navy and HM Coastguard.

“When someone saves your life, you can never repay them,” Mr Nixon observed, quoting from the biography of Ron Holland who, he said, had written the best account of those four days.

The 1979 Fastnet race was to have been the climax of an Admiral’s Cup series that Ireland was tipped to win, and there were almost 3,000 recreational sailors at sea, with minimal safety equipment and few VHF radios on some spectator yachts.

They were scattered between the Scilly isles and the Fastnet – some competing and many following the 605 nautical mile course from the Isle of Wight and back to Plymouth – when a French forecast gave the first indication of the gathering maelstrom.

Published in Fastnet, RORC, Howth YC
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

Email The Author

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).

We've got a favour to ask

More people are reading than ever thanks to the power of the internet but we're in stormy seas because advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. Unlike many news sites, we haven’t put up a paywall because we want to keep our marine journalism open. is Ireland's only full–time marine journalism team and it takes time, money and hard work to produce our content.

So you can see why we need to ask for your help.

If everyone chipped in, we can enhance our coverage and our future would be more secure. You can help us through a small donation. Thank you.

Direct Donation to Afloat button

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

Featured Sailing School

INSS sidebutton

Featured Clubs

dbsc mainbutton
Howth Yacht Club
Kinsale Yacht Club
National Yacht Club
Royal Cork Yacht Club
Royal Irish Yacht club
Royal Saint George Yacht Club

Featured Brokers

leinster sidebutton

Featured Webcams

Featured Car Brands

subaru sidebutton

Featured Associations

ISA sidebutton
isora sidebutton

Featured Events 2020

Featured Chandleries

CHMarine Afloat logo
osm sidebutton
viking sidebutton

Featured Sailmakers

northsails sidebutton
uksails sidebutton

Featured Marinas

dlmarina sidebutton

Featured Blogs

W M Nixon - Sailing on Saturday
podcast sidebutton
mansfield sidebutton
BSB sidebutton
sellingboat sidebutton

Please show your support for Afloat by donating