Survivor: Fastnet race disaster that claimed 19 yachtsmen ‘etched in my mind’

Survivor: Fastnet race disaster that claimed 19 yachtsmen ‘etched in my mind’
Corkman Richard Harrington was a young crew member on the Golden Apple yacht when it was caught in the middle of a Force 11 storm almost 40 years ago. Picture: Larry Cummins

As plans are being finalised to commemorate the 40th anniversary Fastnet Race disaster, one of the competitors in the race has spoken about how he thought he was going to die in the storm, which claimed the life of 19 yachtsmen.

Corkman Richard Harrington was a 21-year-old crew member onboard the Golden Apple yacht, which was skippered by the late Hugh Coveney, father of Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

Golden Apple was one of 303 vessels which was taking part in 605-mile course from Cowes to the Fastnet Rock and then back to Plymouth, via the Isles of Scilly.

A number of yachts taking part in the event, which was the culmination of five-race Admiral’s Cup competition, got into trouble on the third day when a major storm blew in.

Emergency services, naval forces, and civilian vessels from around the west side of the English Channel were summoned to aid in what became the largest-ever rescue operation in peacetime.

It involved some 4,000 people, including the entire Irish Naval Service’s fleet, lifeboats, and commercial boats, as well as RAF and Royal Navy helicopters.

“We were actually winning and on our way back towards England when the storm hit. The rudder sheered off. It was just before lunchtime on Tuesday, August 14. At the time, the crests of the waves were very close together and travelling at very fast speeds,” Richard said.

Tenacious, the eventual winner of the 1979 Fastnet Race, rounds the Rock at 7.30pm on the evening of the storm. Picture: Michael Olney
Tenacious, the eventual winner of the 1979 Fastnet Race, rounds the Rock at 7.30pm on the evening of the storm. Picture: Michael Olney

Even with its rudder sheered off, the Golden Apple had helped coordinate the rescue of the crew of the Festina Terta. Unfortunately one of that yacht’s crew, Roger Watts, drowned before he could be reached by emergency services.

“We were about 30 miles north-west of the Scilly Isles in the middle of the storm. Hugh (Coveney) said to us that he didn’t want to die and asked the rest of us how we felt. The lads said they didn’t want to die either and at this stage we decided to abandon ship,” Richard said.

A Royal Navy Wessex helicopter, which was on route to help the crew of another vessel in distress, flew over the Golden Apple and told them they’d come back for them.

Richard said at that stage the crew put an inflatable raft over the side and clambered onboard.

There were 10 onboard the Golden Apple, including Ron Holland, the yacht’s designer.

“Harold Cudmore, who was one of the crew, wrote a note on a piece of A4 paper which he left on the yacht’s chart table. It read: ‘Gone for lunch, be back in a while’.

Richard said the inflatable kept getting blown up against the yacht.

Sailors form a guard of honour on the Hr MS Overijssel as a victim of the Fastnet disaster is taken off the Dutch warship at Plymouth. Picture: PA
Sailors form a guard of honour on the Hr MS Overijssel as a victim of the Fastnet disaster is taken off the Dutch warship at Plymouth. Picture: PA

“The pilot did a tremendous, skilful job of rescuing us. He used the downdraught from his rotor blades to blow us away from the yacht. The rescue he carried out on us was very quick and very efficient,” Richard said.

The helicopter took the Golden Apple’s crew to Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose on the Lizard Peninsula of Cornwall.

“We were given medical checks when we arrived and transferred to its hospital beds. I was in the next bed to Ron Holland who said in his Kiwi accent: ‘We’re not sick enough to be here’. We were in the hospital for four to five hours. We were fed and given new clothes,” Richard said.

You could see some of the bodies they’d recovered from the sea at the base. It’s something that I will never forget, it’s etched in my mind.

Some of the crew were transferred to accommodation in Plymouth and others to nearby St Agnes, where they stayed for two nights before getting flights from Heathrow back to Cork.

Richard said many of them later met up at Royal Cork Yacht Club (RCYC) in Crosshaven, where they exchanged stories about their traumatic experiences with other crews who had taken part in the race.

Among the 19 who drowned that night, 15 were taking part in the race. The four others were on non-competing yachts.

One Irishman was among the victims — Gerry Winks from Dublin — who was a crewmember of a British-registered yacht. He was only married a year, to Margaret, from Waterford.

Royal Navy ships, RAF Nimrod jets, helicopters, lifeboats, a Dutch warship Hr MS Overijssel, and other craft picked up 125 yachtsmen whose boats had been caught in the violent Force 11 storm. The rescue effort also included tugs, trawlers, and tankers. In total, 75 boats capsized and five sank.

The yacht Ariadne, battered but still afloat (she was later believed to have sunk), in the wake of the Fastnet race disaster. Picture: PA/PA Wire
The yacht Ariadne, battered but still afloat (she was later believed to have sunk), in the wake of the Fastnet race disaster. Picture: PA/PA Wire

“I was saying my prayers. It was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me. The following year, I was sailing a yacht with Clayton Love in Sardinia when the conditions were nearly as bad as the Fastnet. But the Fastnet was definitely the scariest moment. The fact that people are talking about it 40 years later shows how bad it was,” Richard said.

Cape Clear Island will host a commemoration on Sunday, August 18 — the 40th anniversary of the disaster.

A Mass to mark the anniversary will be held at St Ciaran’s Graveyard, starting at 3pm.

One of the main organisers of the anniversary Mass, Séamus Ó Drisceoil, said the islanders are inviting all seafarers and those with connections with the tragedy to join them for the service.

Following the Mass, and on a different note, there will be an unveiling of a painting of Gerald Butler — one of the last lighthouse-keepers — in Cape Clear Heritage Centre at 4.30pm. 


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