Memorial service for Fastnet Yacht Race victims

Former Fastnet lighthouse keeper Gerald Butler is due to represent fellow Irish light keepers at a memorial service for 1979 Fastnet Yacht Race on the Isle of Wight this evening.

Memorial service for Fastnet Yacht Race victims

Former Fastnet lighthouse keeper Gerald Butler is due to represent fellow Irish light keepers at a memorial service for 1979 Fastnet Yacht Race on the Isle of Wight this evening.

Former RNLI Baltimore vessel, The Robert, which was one of four Irish lifeboats involved in the Fastnet race rescue, is also returning to the West Cork harbour to remember its role in the rescues.

A total of 19 people, including two sailors with Irish connections, died after storm force 10 winds hit the race 40 years ago next week.

Almost 3,000 competitors and spectators were sailing the 605 nautical mile course from the Isle of Wight to the Fastnet lighthouse and back to Plymouth when conditions changed dramatically on the night of August 13, 1979.

The ferocity of the storm had not been forecast in time, and there was minimal communication and no satellite technology on the yachts — with even the best equipped yachts unable to deal with 50-60 knot winds.

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

Among the 132 sailors rescued by Royal Navy and RAF helicopers, RNLI lifeboat crews and the Naval Service ship LÉ Deirdre were competitors on 18 Irish yachts — including a then-winning Irish Admiral’s Cup team.

RNLI Baltimore coxswain Kieran Cotter was a crew member with coxswain Christy Collins onboard The Robert, along with voluntary crews from Ballycotton, Courtmacsherry and Dunmore East lifeboats over a period of 75 hours.

The Robert, a Watson 47 class vessel taken out of service and sold by the RNLI in 1991, was recently retrieved by Glasgow-based businessman Jeff Houlgrave, who restored it and steamed with two crew from Scotland to Crosshaven, Co Cork.

The Robert leaves Crosshaven today for Baltimore, and will be met by the current lifeboat as it arrives into the harbour.

“The extraordinary men who went out to sea in 1979 had far less equipment than vessels now, and it is the least we can do to save this past heritage,” Mr Houlgrave said.

On the Fastnet lighthouse, Gerald Butler and colleagues Reggie Sugrue and Louis Cronin battled the winds and waves leaping up to the balcony during the 1979 storm to record sail numbers.

They then reported them back to Mizen Head which relayed the information to the race organisers in Cowes.

“I am very honoured to be representing lightkeepers and recognise the role they played in sea safety over several centuries before automation,” Mr Butler said.

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