my fastnet fascination

Here in China, I have been frequently asked just what is my interest or fascination in the Fastnet Race.

It actually dates back to 1978 when as a Middy (the lowest form of life on a Royal Navy quarterdeck) on HMS Droxford we were moored up in Newcastle on Tyne. We had a party for the Tyne RNR going on that evening but I had drawn the short straw of Office of the Watch (OOW) which included keeping an ear out on the VHF radio traffic.

I heard HMSTY Chaser clearing in at Tynemouth so popped down below to suggest to the boss, Lt Cmdr Grattan-Cooper is it was OK to offer them a berth alongside to save them tending their lines through the night as they had received a real weather kicking on the trip down from Inverness. I received a positive along with a suggestion they might like to join the party.

The boat captain was Dave Butchart and I asked if they needed a ‘lift’ on their next leg down to Great Yarmouth. “Only if it is someone who can sail” was the response and after a brief verbal CV he said he would speak to the skipper about a temporary secondment. After a 24 hour lie over it was to be the start of an eventful few days.

As we motored down the River Tyne at 0800 I was asked to provide a brief passage plan and most importantly an estimated ETA at the next port of call so armed with the 24 hours of weather faxes we had been providing them with I set to work. A complex weather system with very strong winds around midnight would get us to Great Yarmouth around 1630 the following day I estimated and this was duly communicated to Tyne Coastguard.

Chaser was (and hopefully still is) a Camper & Nicholson 55 and had been my dream yacht since, when doing a school project years ago, in response to a request, C & N sent me a whole host of material including line drawings, photographs, etc. Already a dream come true.

Sure enough not long after midnight we were in a Force 8 with the crew of mainly boy seamen struggling a bit. The call came to reduce the headsail further (no roller furling) and they were being very slow about it. I handed the helm over and clipped onto the jackline and ran forward forgetting to lift it off the deck and I am sure those trying to sleep below did not appreciate the ‘midnight express’ above their heads. Passing the mast I told them to spin the turns off the halyard winch when I got to the bow and down came the sail big style. 

I got back to the cockpit and retook the helm and as I brought her off the wind I felt a sharp pain in my wrist. I had caught a cleat on the way forward and tumbled but with the adrenaline flowing had hardly noticed. It was duly strapped as best we could in the conditions and we sailed on with me being finally almost forced off the helm to go below to rest.

We finally cleared Great Yarmouth harbour mouth at 1645, just 15 minutes behind my ETA which I was pretty chuffed with. Later that evening as we chugged a pint or two I was almost literally frog marched to the local hospital where an X-Ray confirmed a broken wrist.

Transferring back to HMS Droxford we left the next day for a Dover Patrol – basically, the traffic cop in the middle of the TSS making sure no one was driving the wrong side of The Channel. A wave caught me unawares and I grabbed for a stanchion but the ‘stookie’ on my arm stopped me from gripping it properly and over I went. I couldn’t say I saw stars but I was sparked out. 

When we got to Dover the ship was met by a Royal Navy ambulance and I was whisked off to the local hospital for the mandatory 24 hour lie in while the ship sailed north to Rosyth Naval Base on the Forth – with my gear on board.

Fortunately, as I lived in Edinburgh at the time I was able to go across and collect it but of course, my grip had to be opened on leaving the dockyard. There on top was a brand new, shiny, pub tray.

We had a challenge going on in the gun room that if we were in a pub we had to lift an ashtray. I  had got a round of drinks and put the tray down beside my chair and thought it was a good idea to walk out with my foulie jacket draped over it. Oops! 

Thankfully the gate security was more amused than annoyed and I was sent on my way with a tsk tsk from them.

I thought no more of the events other than it being pretty eventful until I received communications from Dave Butchart to see if I would be interested in navigating Manadon’s yacht in the 1979 Fastnet. (Sorry, at this point I had to pause writing as even after all this time it still brings back memories). Would I? Of course.

Unfortunately, 6-8ish weeks before the race I had to pull out due to work pressures.

For those who don’t know the boat, she was called Flashlight, as well a prepared yacht as it could possibly be and she lost two overboard in the storm that claimed a total of 19 lives. It is often reported as 15 people but there was also a non-racing yacht where 4 souls were lost to the same storm.

For weeks afterward, I had what these days, might be called a survivor’s syndrome. Some might call it absurd but I kept thinking, ‘Would I have placed the yacht in a different part of the ocean, would I have reminded about harnesses’ and so on. I can assure you they were real feelings and never knock it when I hear of others complaining about such things because I know they are real.

So have I ever done a Fastnet? Sadly never. Perhaps I didn’t chase that dream because in some way I ‘lost my bottle’. I don’t know but I cannot shake the fascination with this incredible event. It has everything, tidal gates to negotiate, when to stay in or when to go further out, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean to cross on the way out AND back and of course the most iconic turning mark in ocean racing. 

Now it finishes across the Channel with the additional tidal challenges of the Brittany coast. There were doubters that stated it wasn’t the real Fastnet anymore but they are wrong. At 695 miles it is a true test of so many aspects of offshore racing and seamanship. It is the biggest, the longest, and certainly the most rapidly subscribed of all the offshore races. 

300+ owners (plus the wait list) can’t be wrong.

PS I also got close with the Sydney Hobart but that is another story for another day… – SS.