Drama brings back memories of Fastnet Race disaster for skipper

A FORMER captain of a yacht that raced in the 1979 Fastnet Race in which 15 people died, has said the professionalism of both the crew and their rescuers ensured no lives were lost when the Rambler 100 capsized on Monday night.

In 1979, Dónal McClement, was a navigator with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and skipper of a seven-man crew sailing in the RAF class 4 yacht Black Arrow.

Now a yacht broker in Crosshaven, Dónal said when he heard the US yacht had capsized, he immediately thought of the events of that fateful night in 1979 when 15 people lost their lives.

“Of course it brings back memories. When you hear that 16 people are on an upturned hull and another five are in the water, you just hope its not another 1979 situation. What happened on Monday was nothing like the 1979 disaster. Thankfully, lessons were learned from that time and now the general approach to safety and the awareness of the importance of safety is so much better,” he said.

He said the professionalism and quick thinking of both the crew and their rescuers was crucial in preventing the loss of life.

“I can tell you just how difficult it is to see people in the water. It’s a great big ocean out there. The five who managed to tether themselves together were just brilliant. If they had not had the presence of mind to do that, they could very well have perished. It would have been very difficult to see the boat upturned also. Some yachts passed within half a mile and couldn’t see them.

“I have always been full of admiration for the RNLI and the Baltimore lifeboat were exemplary, as was Jerry Smith, who was out on his diving boat and plucked the five from the water. He deserves huge plaudits,” he said.

Dónal said a less experienced crew than the Rambler may not have been so lucky. “The guys on Rambler 100 are full-on, world-class professionals. You can’t buy that sort of experience. So where fear might be the prime emotion for many in that situation, it would have been secondary to them. They knew instantly what they had to do. A less experienced crew might not have been so lucky.”

Though the lucky escape of the Rambler 100 brought back memories of 1979, Dónal pointed out the two events were vastly different.

“Whereas on Monday you had winds of 20 to 25 knots, in 1979, we had six to eight hours of very severe weather. We also had a big wind shift of about 45/50 degrees that night so the swell was coming at you from all angles. It was almost hurricane force. For those hours we were in survival mode. I made a decision about 2am that even if a boat was next to us, there was nothing we could do as we would be risking our boat and our crew in helping them. We saw flares going up so we knew people were in trouble but there was no way we could get to them. I was lucky that I had a crew that were very experienced and used to discipline and leadership. Others just didn’t know what hit them.”

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