In 1979 Matthew Sheahan, aged 17, was racing his father’s yacht Grimalkin in the Fastnet Race. After being rolled, pitchpoled, battered and half drowned, and believing the rest of the crew to be dead, he and two others had to make a crucial decision
At 0830 Tuesday 14 August 1979, aged 17, five minutes changed my life. Five minutes that, despite the stress of the previous six hours, would encapsulate the most extreme emotional highs and lows that I would ever experience. Five minutes that would be stretched to the longest minutes of the night and culminate in the most important decision I would ever make to this day – a decision that would need to be made in the most testing conditions. And a decision that I would feel forced to justify three decades later.
During what turned out to be the wildest and most destructive night in yacht racing history, our six-man crew aboard Grimalkin, a 30ft Nicholson half tonner, saw conditions deteriorate rapidly as we headed out across the Celtic Sea on our way to the Fastnet Rock.
Aboard were my father, David Sheahan, Gerry Winks, Mike Doyle, Nick Ward, Dave Wheeler and myself. All had experience of offshore racing, all had raced together aboard Grimalkin for most of the season through a variety of what we thought were testing conditions, yet none of us had any idea how far we would be pressed during the next few hours.
The first knockdown was a shock to the system, a one-off, an extreme incident that, like lightning striking twice, was impossible to imagine happening again. But when it did, time after time, it was clear that our focus had changed from racing to survival.
As we careered down the perilously steep face of a yet another mountainous wave it was clear this was going to be a big one – at best a terrifying white knuckle ride, at worst the end of our night. Within a few seconds our boat speed leapt from a lethargic amble in the trough of the wave to a thundering plane as the wave pitched us head first into the invisible trough 40-60ft below.
Running down what felt like a vertical wave under bare poles in the dark while trailing multiple warps, there was nothing we could do to slow down. As the log wound itself up like the rev counter on an engine that has just been floored, a pair of huge white bow waves arced out from each side, providing a V-shaped wall of water ahead.
The continual howl of the storm was deafening, but the rumble and hiss generated by this outrageous burst of speed rose above the background. A soul-chilling surge of fear swept through all of us as we heard the terrifying sound of a breaking wave 40ft above us.
In just a few seconds the 10ft high foaming crest was bearing down on us from behind like an avalanche. We dared not look back. There was no escape.
As time slowed down before the inevitable crash, the most terrifying aspect of our predicament was the realisation that we had no more options. There was simply nowhere to go.
Any attempt to steer along the face of the wave was futile and would have meant a knockdown and tonnes of foaming water cascading onto the boat.
Having been knocked down repeatedly and the crew thrown into the water, we’d already been there several times during the night.
We braced ourselves for the pooping of our lives, but a split second before the onslaught from astern, the bow disappeared as we nosedived into a wall of water in front. No one had seen that coming, not that it would have done any good if they had.
As the bow submarined into this secondary wave, Grimalkin’s stern rose until it arced over the bow and stood us on our nose. As we approached the vertical, crew were thrown against the back of the coachroof or out of the boat altogether. A split second later and we were hit from astern by the breaking wave and we pitchpoled.
Solid water and bubbles rushed past my face, my limbs streamed out as I was towed underwater like a mackerel spinner by my harness line. I had no idea which way was up, where the boat was, or what would happen next. Helpless, overpowered and overwhelmed, when your predicament gets to this stage your mind goes into an alien state where fear is replaced with resignation. But, as I was to discover three hours later, this clearly wasn’t my time yet.
Seconds later I broke the surface, trailing alongside the boat, spluttering, thrashing around and desperate to get hold of anything connected to the boat. Although she had righted herself, Grimalkin was now starting to accelerate down the face of another wave.
I don’t really know what happened next other than somehow I managed to get back aboard. As I scrambled back on deck, I could hear shouting, but in the dark, the noise and the drama of the conditions it was impossible to work out who was saying what.
As I tried to make sense of the situation I looked aft to see a pair of hands clutching one of the vertical legs of the pushpit. It was Dave Wheeler hanging on, struggling to keep his head above the quarter wave. As the stern pitched and heaved, somehow we pulled him back aboard.
I sat there and looked at him and for a reason I still don’t understand, ran my hand down his harness line to find his carbine hook floating free, detached from the boat. Both of us went numb with shock.
Until this moment, running with the seas had been slightly more comfortable, safer even, than trying to reach across them or lie ahull where we felt like a sitting duck waiting for yet another breaking crest to roll us on our side, sometimes through 360°.
Sailing downhill reduced the apparent windspeed, reduced heeling and provided a degree of manoeuvrability that allowed us to dodge the terrifying breaking crests. The trouble was that at speed and with waves coming from all directions – now the breeze had swung through 90° – the potential for a major pile up was greatly increased.
The reality was that until now we had simply been lucky, most of the breakers had rolled past us on either side – just. On this point of sail there was no skill in avoiding the waves, we were simply playing a game of Russian roulette. And when the bullet and the barrel lined up, the waves that struck us broadside had simply laid us flat or rolled us, ejecting the crew into the sea.
Running out of options
That was frightening and risky enough, but the pitchpole that we had just experienced was all the more distressing as it drove home the unpleasant truth that we were fast running out of options. What else could we try? How much more could we take? How much more could our boat withstand and how much more water below decks would it take to see her start to sink?
As we took knock after knock, thinking beyond the next 60 seconds seemed impossible. Tired, cold and hypothermic, just responding to our surroundings second by second was the best our six-man crew could achieve. Our ability to make rational decisions was being impaired rapidly.
Even the simplest things were becoming difficult. I remember that, despite recognising the various components of zip on my oilskin jacket, I just couldn’t work out how to do it up.
But, over the course of the next few hours, life was about to become far more taxing and present the most serious dilemma I have ever experienced.
The final blow
Looking back at conditions during the night and listening to the accounts of others, including those of our surviving crew, has helped me to understand how some sailors saw the storm and their reasons for wanting to abandon their boats.
Aboard Grimalkin during the night we had discussed whether we should abandon ship and considered the issue of whether we should send out a Mayday. Neither debate drew a consensus. My father was reluctant. He certainly did not want to abandon the boat and neither did he feel at that moment that a Mayday was warranted.
Leaving the boat had never cropped up in our discussions during our preparations for the race other than to check that the liferaft was in date. But when it came to sending out a distress call, he knew precisely what was involved.
Being a methodical man who left nothing to chance, he had run through the procedure several times at home. I still have the four hand-written pages of A4 he used as revision notes. He knew what a Mayday was for and despite our uncomfortable plight, questioned whether at this point there was imminent risk to life.
But as we continued to take a hammering through the night and into the dawn it was becoming clearer that several of our crew were in a seriously bad way. In particular, Gerry Winks, a sailing friend of several years from our former club at Queen Mary reservoir, was suffering badly from hypothermia and struggling to stay conscious. Nick Ward was struggling too.
As the pounding continued and with the boat flooded, a rapidly deteriorating crew and another debate as to our predicament, we decided it was time to call for some help and at around 0600 my father and I went below to send out a Mayday.
Racing yachts of the day were never designed with knockdowns in mind, let alone full 360° rolls. Few are today. Had they been, general stowage would have been in secure lockers rather than open stowage under pipecot-type bunks.
As we were repeatedly hurled around the ocean, food, equipment, internal ballast and even joinery started to fly around the cabin, making the accommodation a seriously dangerous place to be.
Six years later I would experience similar conditions in the 1985 Fastnet aboard a three-quarter tonner and witness the skipper spending his off-watch nailing down locker lids with screws, or ‘Manchester nails’ as he liked to call them. According to him, we were taking no risks. If we didn’t need it, or it couldn’t be fastened down and it presented a risk, it was over the side.
But in 1979 the lesson was only just being learnt and we were about to have a practical demonstration that I believe contributed to my father’s death.
Chaos below decks
As I stood by the chart table listening to my father make contact with the yacht Morningtown, which was relaying our message to Land’s End Radio, I heard an awful deep rumble outside, another wave was bearing down directly upwind of us.
A quick glance through the port hand coachroof window revealed a monster breaking wave, careering towards us. I remember bracing myself before the noise and chaos erupted below decks as we were rolled yet again through 360°.
As the boat came upright, the water, gear and general debris rained down onto the cabin sole. My father lay slumped over the chart table, unconscious and bleeding from the head. He had been hit by a tin of food and had a bad gash on his head and a deep skull fracture. We had to get out of the cabin.
I grabbed the first aid kit and called for help to drag him up on deck where we tried to attend to his wound. I was sitting in the cockpit cradling my father’s head as he mumbled incoherently and he winced as I sprayed plastic skin onto the gash. It was the last definite response I got from him.
From here on, time stretches and compresses as the combination of hypothermia, stress, anxiety and deep-rooted fear distorted proceedings. The VHF antenna had broken in the last 360° roll rendering the radio useless. I remember a Nimrod making two swooping passes overhead as it dropped green flares. I remember that we fired what few flares we had after several had been swept away as a wave washed across the deck.
We could make none of them operate properly and they either skimmed along the tops of the waves, or buried themselves in the water just yards from us. I suspect we were not firing them off correctly rather than any fault with the flares and mention this only to highlight our mental plight at the time. Our ability to save ourselves was becoming dangerously compromised.
Desperate to display our distress we hoisted a square over a circle, but looking back, clearly a battle flag and a lifebelt were not the best items to hoist up the mast. The increased windage, to say nothing of the foolishness of hoisting a lifebelt were clear indications of a crew in mental meltdown. We were becoming incapable of thinking rationally and were physically spent.
Slumped in the cockpit, holding onto my barely conscious father, I remember hearing the familiar roar of yet another aquatic avalanche behind my head. We were hit hard in the back as if shunted from behind on the motorway. Then nothing.
Nothing, until I found myself trapped under the upturned side deck of the boat.
I could see the name of the boat on the side, a bold written script in royal blue, but upside-down. I could see the keel and the rudder pointing skywards – a familiar and frustrating sight when sailing my National 12, but this was clearly wrong.
As I swung in and out from under the gunwale and struggled to break free I could feel something between my legs which I realised was a head – Nick Ward’s, I recognised the blue collar on his jacket.
I grabbed his head and tried to pull him out, but he was jammed. There was no motion from him either, no thrashing of arms, no twisting of the head.
Quickly I realised that I too was in serious trouble. I hadn’t managed to get clear of the boat and couldn’t breathe or indeed get my head above the water.
Only occasionally was I able to take gasps of air as the boat rose and fell over the waves that continued to sweep through.
With my life harness line running under the upper guardwire before it went back to the cockpit, the line simply wasn’t long enough to get my head clear.
I was being pinned down. Our safety lines only had hooks on one end and were spliced to the harness, making it impossible to release. A blessing in some ways – had I been able to release the line at my end, I suspect there would have been nothing to hold onto and I would have been swept away.
As a child I had been late to learn to swim and lacked the level of confidence you might expect of someone who lived for sailing. Consequently, a fear of drowning was at the top of my list of phobias. Yet when faced with this outcome for real, as I struggled in vain to free myself, I was amazed to discover that irritation, anger and bitterness rather than blind panic and abject terror were the overwhelming emotions.
The calmness of the situation struck me as a huge relief, yet being forced to say goodbye at 17 years old, when the world was just starting to open up, seemed fiercely unjust.
To drown when we had survived so much during the night also seemed so unfair.
Whether the several gasps of air that I did manage to grasp accelerated the hallucinations I do not know, but I saw my family, friends, car and drum kit all neatly lined up on green rolling hills atop chalk white cliffs less than a mile away, which was both comforting and cruel.
Yet while my mind played tricks, my body appeared to be continuing its struggle to survive. The only way to get my head above water was to take off my inflated lifejacket in order to remove the separate safety harness underneath. Somehow I managed this, looping one arm through the discarded lifejacket for support. As I surfaced I spun around to see Dave Wheeler pop up alongside me at the aft quarter.
Until that moment I had assumed I was the only one to be thrown clear. I was elated to see him. As I shouted to him that we should climb on the upturned hull, gunwale started to rise above the water’s surface. Suddenly the entire deck opened up in front of me and a broken mast allowed Grimalkin to right in an instant. Indeed, so fast did she come up that I was launched into the boat, hauled by the harness line that I had not fully removed.
I landed on top of Gerry and Nick. They looked desperate. At 17 I had only seen one person die, a weekend sailor at Queen Mary who had had a heart attack on the pontoon after stepping out of his dinghy on a breezy day. But that was at a distance; this was face to face. Both my crewmates were motionless in the bottom of the cockpit, which was swilling with water. Nick’s face and lips were blue, Gerry had a facial injury.
As I scrambled to my feet I was looking upwind and saw a body face down in the water 50ft or so upwind. I knew instantly who it was. I knew too that he had drowned. Fit men don’t lie face down in the water, the arms outstretched unless they’re doing front crawl. My father was blind in one eye, wore glasses and could only swim breaststroke. As kids we teased him that he couldn’t go underwater like us and while he tried to laugh it off, it was clear he couldn’t.
A snap second later I turned around to help Dave Wheeler back aboard and together we stumbled across the cockpit to the high side to see a pair of hands gripping the pulpit stanchion. It was Mike Doyle, clinging to the back of the boat. Together we just about managed to haul Mike back aboard.
I stood up, looked to windward and watched us drift further away from my father, as we were pushed by the wind and the waves. I was numb, exhausted, in shock and bewildered. My brain was in neutral, my body freewheeling, I felt like an empty shell. Only the yelling behind me snapped me out of my trance.
“Come on, we’ve got to get off the boat, she’s sinking!” screamed Mike. “The rig’s down and will go through the hull. Come on, come on, she’s sinking!”
As he yelled at us he was scrambling towards the aft leeward quarter. The liferaft was already afloat, removed from under the cockpit floor some time earlier and prepared in case we had to deploy it in a hurry. After the boat had inverted, the raft dropped into the sea. All Mike needed to do was to pull the ripcord. As he did so the liferaft inflated, but in the 50-60 knot winds it started flaying around behind the boat. My God, he was serious, he was climbing in. Dave was following too.
My instinct was to stay on the boat. My father and I had frequently repeated the quip we had heard about stepping up to the liferaft from the masthead. But this was for real and it felt so wrong.
I was standing in the middle of the cockpit, my drowned father to windward, two motionless bodies at my feet, a seriously disabled, dismasted boat and the only two people who were conscious in a liferaft holding onto the pulpit and asking me whether I was coming or staying. I don’t know if the naivety of being just 17 helped or hindered in such a situation
The right response?
Thirty years on, I still don’t know how I’d react given the same set of circumstances. What I do know is that it’s damned easy to be wise after the event and make decisions that seem clear-cut from a warm secure room on terra firma after hours, weeks or years of deliberation.
My instinct at the time might have told me that staying with the boat was the right thing to do, but the sequence of events that followed can and have been argued to be precisely the right response by many, including sea survival experts.
Mike did what he believed was right at the time, so did Dave and I have always respected that. Nothing has and will change this. The terror of being trapped under the upturned hull is one that even now I can’t bear to imagine. Mike, a strong swimmer, describes the fear he felt and the conviction he had that the boat was going down.
I don’t blame him for one second for wanting to get off that boat as soon as she righted, something he had helped to achieve by climbing the hull. Had my father remained with the boat and conscious, his fear of water and enclosed spaces would have sent him into a blind panic, as indeed it did when the boat was upside-down.
Mike had cut my father free, something I will always be grateful for. He did what he felt was right at the time and I would defend fiercely any criticism of his actions.
A respect for both the men who died and the people who tried to save them is why during the last 30 years I have deliberately avoided certain issues to do with the past few minutes of my father’s and Gerry’s lives. It’s easy to make snap decisions when you’re not there, and sometimes hard to live with them when you were.
All three of us have been criticised for leaving two crewmembers aboard the boat, most recently in Nick Ward’s book Left for Dead, and before that in John Rousmaniere’s book Fastnet Force 10 where, in the inaccurate chapters that refer to our plight, the author suggests that: ‘A close look convinced them [myself, Dave and Mike] that if Winks and Ward were not dead, they soon would be.’
I have always found that statement and the intimation that we made a casual and callous assessment deeply offensive. The author and others who have made such one-sided judgements without having asked any of the three of us for our side of the story also forget that we were leaving three people behind. Among them was my father and, while his plight looked desperate, I hadn’t given up.
What I will admit to is simply not having the strength to lift or move two adult bodies, especially as they were caught up in a cat’s cradle of ropes.
Survival is not simply a battle of wills, a set of rights and wrongs that make for a convenient flow chart for success. Saving oneself to fetch help for others is not an unusual strategy. Sometimes it’s simply an instinct. I believe that the chain of events that followed, while far from being a strategy at the time, demonstrate this.
Salvation, confusion, success
When compared with the terrifying hours in a spinning, flooded and unstable liferaft, the stress we had experienced aboard Grimalkin during the night was a walk in the park. This alone would make me think doubly hard in the future about climbing into a liferaft, but it still wouldn’t necessarily make for the right answer.
When we were finally picked up by a Sea King helicopter at around 1030, I was the first to be plucked to safety. On entering the helicopter I was asked which boat I was from. “Grimalkin,” I replied. “Are you sure?” asked one of the crew, shouting over the roar of the engine and rotors. “We’ve had no report of her here.”
“Grimalkin, Grimalkin, she’s upwind from here, you have to go back, there are two people on board and one in the water,” I stressed, as the recovery of Mike and Dave continued below us. “We must go back, we must go back,” I continued, anxious that my message wasn’t getting through.
Lying back against the fuselage of the helicopter were other sailors, the first inkling I’d had that others were in trouble too. A weak smile greeted me from one of the crew from Trophy.
With Mike and Dave now aboard, I continued my plea for the helicopter to go to Grimalkin. I can’t remember who told me, but it was made clear that they didn’t have enough fuel to continue a search and had to head back to shore, but I was not to worry. They would radio ahead the position and inform the rescue services; another helicopter would be back out.
Partially relieved, but still concerned about the plight of the other three, I hadn’t begun to appreciate the havoc the storm had caused. As we flew over, boat after boat, more liferafts than I’d seen at a boat show, waves, spume and chaos lay below.
Recently, I met up with one of the pilots who flew us back to safety, Keith Thompson, who today runs a successful helicopter sales and charter business in Cornwall called Castle Air. He described to me how the rescue plan was developing more quickly than the services could sort out and how rescues were being prioritised.
“We were the second Sea King airborne that day. As we took off, we thought we were rescuing just one boat, but by the time we had reached the Scillies on the way out I had filled up my kneepad note board with the names of boats that we were being asked to search for and was starting to write the names on the windscreen,” he explained.
“We weren’t sure whether we were looking for boats, liferafts or people. People in the water were our priority. Next came liferafts. At one point we lowered our man down onto a liferaft to see if the crew were OK. They said they were, so we said we’d pick them up later.”
This was a staggering indication of the scale of the drama that had unfolded and the unconventional approach that was required in the extraordinary circumstances. The fact that we had been picked up at all suggested that we had been part of this prioritisation. That, and luck.
“We headed back after four hours’ flying to refuel and went straight back out as there was no one to take over,” continued Thompson, whose working day finished after 8 hours and 20 minutes of flying in seriously challenging conditions.
Landing at RNAS Culdrose, we hobbled across the apron and were transported to the Naval hospital. My recollection of our arrival is a blur. Confused, anxious and disorientated, on the one hand I was relieved to be ashore, on the other, numbed by the shock of the previous few hours and the worry and distress at having left my father and two crewmembers behind.
I do remember trying to find someone to ask whether another helicopter had gone back to the boat and whether they had found the crew.
I still hadn’t given up hope, but I started to feel sick inside as the prospect of having to phone home to break the news to my mother, brother and sister began to occupy my thoughts.
I had already started to hear dramatic stories on the ward of boats going down with all hands and, while these were unconfirmed (and fortunately, as it turned out later, untrue), it was becoming clear that this was a major disaster.
I needed to tell my mother that three of us were safe, but three were not. How could I tell her what had happened to Dad? Should I continue to keep her hopes up, or was it better to face the likelihood that he had drowned? I couldn’t think how I would tell her either way.
Nick Ward and Gerry Winks were not recovered from the boat until later that evening and even then were only stumbled across by the rescue services, despite my repeated requests to get help to them. What had happened as a result of the Nimrod fly by, my comments in the helicopter and my efforts once ashore?
Once again, it would be easy to start pointing fingers, but in my opinion, very wrong. Such an extraordinary event relied on an extraordinary response and people were forced to make decisions as they went along, many of them heroic. Sometimes there simply are no guidelines and goodwill and instinct take over.
When I did discover that Nick had been recovered alive, I was relieved and delighted. Thank God. Suddenly the effort spent nagging people about going back to the boat seemed worth it after a day in which I had spent plenty of time doubting myself questioning and whether others knew more than they were prepared to tell me. Yet the good news came with bad. Gerry was dead and there was no report of my father. His body was never found.
Although in my heart I knew he had gone, for the next few years I couldn’t help thinking that maybe, somehow, he had survived. Whenever I saw a story in the national newspapers, no matter how small, regarding a body that had been found, my heart raced. Was it him? Or perhaps by some miracle he had survived? Thirty years later I’m just about over it, but it doesn’t stop me wondering what might have been.
Life after ’79
Returning to our flat in Hamble was tough. Our life was in turmoil and continued that way for many months. Aside from the distress and practical implications following the loss of two crewmembers from our boat, my father was one of the founding partners and the financial director of a large London- based company. Because his body had not yet been found, a death certificate could not be issued and the family’s assets and estate was frozen. The company had suddenly been thrown into a difficult situation too.
Our minds were in many places and again I found myself responding to situations rather than controlling them. While we had never anticipated anything like this, the turmoil and distress wasn’t surprising.
What was alarming, though, was the broadside we took when John Rousmaniere’s book Fastnet Force 10 was published the following year. Included in the various stories of the storm was a detailed account of our assessment during those critical five minutes on 14 August, the actions that followed and the suggestion that the three of us were wrong to leave the boat – all of which was written and published without the author ever asking me, Dave or Mike.
I felt betrayed. I also felt confused. If nothing else, one of the pictures in the book taken from the helicopter shortly before Nick was airlifted off the deck shows Gerry in precisely the same position as I remembered leaving him.
As part of the process that followed the loss of two lives from Grimalkin, Mike Doyle and I had to attend and give evidence at the inquest into the death of Gerry held in Truro on 17 October 1979. The purpose was also to provide evidence so that a death certificate could be issued for my father.
The pathologist’s evidence as to the cause of Gerry’s death had been given when the inquest was opened on 16 August and death was due to drowning. The Coroner added that his drowning had been quick. In his view, Gerry had been dead at the time the boat was abandoned.
The helicopter observer, Petty Officer Glover, who lowered winchman Peter Harrison down onto the deck to recover Nick and Gerry also gave evidence. He said that Harrison had found Gerry tangled in various sheets and cables and was aboard the boat for about five minutes to untangle his body.
Moving Gerry and Nick seemed impossible to us at the time. Now it seemed that a fit and healthy helicopter crewman had a similar problem.
In the heat of the moment we believed the two crew were dead. Thankfully one of them wasn’t and was recovered. According to the findings at the inquest, it appeared that the other one was.
Even back in 1979 it was clear that the issue as to whether or not Gerry was dead when we left would be contentious. Nick has his recollections, I have mine. What I did know for sure and what hasn’t changed since is that, at the time, everyone did what they felt was correct given the circumstances – whether on board the deck of our boat, in the pilot seat of a helicopter, in the admissions department of the Culdrose sick bay or in the search and rescue co-ordination centre. The ’79 Fastnet was an extraordinary storm, which led to an unprecedented sailing disaster.
I still have the greatest sympathy for Nick’s terrifying ordeal, coming to on board the boat with four of his crewmates missing.
I cannot begin to imagine how I would have coped. Yet it saddens me that, terrifying though his ordeal was, little regard has been paid to the sensitivities of what others might have been going through and how they have coped since. To analyse people’s response is one thing, to criticise their best efforts in the circumstances quite another.
In recounting my experiences in this race, on TV or in the press, I have always tried to consider the feelings of others, particularly those who were involved and their families. Upholding their dignity, respecting their judgement and the stress that such actions may have caused them since was always in my mind. Not everyone was able to get back in the saddle. I did, I was lucky, others less so.
But sadly, after 30 years, I feel that our story, in particular, has become one-sided to the point that, if I don’t speak out, what has been published so far will become fact by default. Not only do I feel saddened about the description of what happened aboard the boat, but the suggestion that I shunned Nick following his safe return also upsets me. The suggestion of a pact among the three of us is offensive.
A few days after Nick returned to the Hamble we met and he visited our flat. We went to church. A few weeks later we travelled to Ireland to find the boat and a few weeks after that we went to the liferaft manufacturers RFD in Godalming after they had recovered our raft.
Yes, conversation may have been strained; simply coping with everyday life was hard, let alone rationalising the difficult decision I had had to make. I could have buried my head in the sand, hidden away, but I wanted to show my support and gratitude that he had survived and to face up to what would clearly be a difficult, emotional issue.
I feel disappointed and disheartened that my best efforts at the time are now judged to have been insufficient.
Mike Doyle, who had developed a friendship with Nick during the 1979 season, visited Nick at his home shortly after he was released from hospital. It is unfair to claim, as Nick does, that none of us spoke to him.
But the bottom line was that Nick survived, my father and Gerry didn’t. While it hurts to think of the people who might be affected by this, it hurts even more to think that the biggest decision of my life to date might now be considered, by those who’ve read just one side of the story, to have been a quick and cold-hearted response.
It was anything but.
In truth, 40 years means nothing to me, but 14 August means everything. Whether on the weather rail of race boats or 4,000ft above the English countryside, hopping from thermal to thermal in a gliding championship, 14 August has become for me a big day for reflection, a reminder if nothing else, that keeping a cool head and staying on top of your situation starts with your state of mind. Don’t let the little things slip away from you.
But the days in between each 14 August are pretty important too and there still aren’t many that I don’t have some thought about my father, the race or what I have learnt as a result.
In the 40 years that have passed since that terrible night and for all the distress that it has caused, losing control of the small things is what I fear the most. The more you let things run away from you, the bigger the potential disaster.
Perhaps that’s what this is all about.
For reasons that barely seem logical today, on returning to Hamble I was determined to find and recover Grimalkin, convinced that she was still afloat somewhere. Yet my search for our boat, conducted with the kind help of the secretary of the Royal Air Force Yacht Club, drew blank after blank, with coastguards reporting that she had been sunk – until we received a phone call saying that she was sitting in a Customs compound in New Ross, Southern Ireland.
A hastily organised visit to Ireland was rewarded with finding her looking in a very sorry state after she had been salvaged by a commercial vessel. Determined to have her repaired and recommissioned, I had the boat shipped back to the UK and rebuilt by her original builders Camper & Nicholsons.
I took delivery of her in spring 1980 and with family and friends sailed her back to her berth on the Hamble. For the next four years I raced and cruised her with friends.
About the author
Matt returned to offshore racing four weeks after the Fastnet in a JOG race to Le Havre aboard the prototype to Grimalkin, Silver Jubilee. He got a part-time job running the boat and the campaign while the owner commuted between Bahrain and Hamble.
In 1981 Silver Jubilee was sold and her owner’s new project was a Half Ton Cup campaign in a new Rob Humphreys design called Zephyros. They competed in the 1981 Fastnet, winning the Clarion Cup for the best-placed British entry on handicap.
Later that season Matt started a course in Yacht Design at Southampton Institute. After qualifying he joined Proctor Masts as a spar designer before moving on to become technical sales manager for the yacht division.
During this period he sat on the RORC’s Technical Committee, the Special Regulations committee and the main committee. In 1985 he competed in another Fastnet Race, this time aboard Robert Bottomley’s SJ35 Fearnought, a breezy race that saw 50 knots on the way back and a spell under bare poles.
In 1992 he joined Yachting World as Technical Editor, a role he held until 2016. Aside from the many miles that he has clocked up since, he has campaigned ceaselessly for improved stability for offshore yachts and to ensure that the data be made publicly available.
Article first published in the August 2009 edition of Yachting World.
It is so notorious among sailors that you could say the Fastnet Rock is the northern hemisphere’s Cape Horn. Legends…
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