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Second edition of 'Fastnet: One Man's Voyage' republished

by Keith Taylor/Roger Vaughan 21 Jul 14:28 PDT 22 July 2019
The Royal Ocean Racing Club's Rolex Fastnet Race has once again lured sailors from around the world to compete in the historic race. 2019 will be the 48th edition © Rolex / Daniel Forster

Nothing had prepared Life magazine writer Roger Vaughan for his abrupt full-immersion baptism in the icy waters of the Irish Sea in the fatal Fastnet Race of 1979.

Vaughan had crewed in major ocean races like Newport to Bermuda and the annual coastwise competitions of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference. Racing with skipper-owner Jim Kilroy aboard the renowned maxi sloop Kialoa would be a busman’s holiday.

Vaughan had a Life magazine assignment to profile Kilroy. What better way to get the measure a man than to sail with him aboard the highly-successful boat he’d conceived, shepherded though design and construction, and lavished care and attention on every detail.

The Royal Ocean Racing Club’s 605-mile Fastnet classic from the sheltered waters off the Isle of Wight, across the Irish Sea to the light tower guarding the rocky outcropping off the south coast of Ireland, would be Vaughan’s first RORC event.

The Fastnet disaster, in which 15 sailors perished, dozens were injured, five competing boats were sunk and others overturned, is already the stuff of legend. Countless articles, commentaries and analyses have been published.

Vaughan’s book 'Fastnet: One Man’s Voyage' vividly provides his unique perspective from a front-runner. Kialoa had rounded the Fastnet Rock and was running for home as the unprecedented weather bomb that decimated the fleet was still intensifying and visiting destruction on the boats astern. Kialoa did not escape the violence.

In the midst of the storm, a violent knockdown flung two crewmen off the rail toward the middle of the boat where they fetched up on their lifelines with a jerk and then bounced back to land on Jim Kilroy’s back, Vaughan wrote.

“Kilroy had seen the cresting sea coming and braced himself on a winch. The two careening bodies crushed him against it, ribs first. He went grudgingly below in pain with two broken ribs and a protruding piece of dislocated cartilage that would be his permanent souvenir of the race.”

Vaughan didn’t escape either. Later, when toiling with other crew to contain the folds of the reefed main, he was washed momentarily over the lifelines by a boarding sea. He was only in the water for 15 seconds but it was more of a thrill than he had bargained for.

“The world ‘rush,’ co-opted in the 1960’s by drug users to describe the effect of high-quality goods, had just been given new meaning. The force of water that hit him was astonishing. He had gone over like a chip of wood. The feeling of total helplessness was immensely sobering.”

Afterward Vaughan wrote, “The perilous nature of the event – what evolved as a journey to the edge of disaster – caused my report to become a more comprehensive picture of how people in such a dire situation react, and what they contemplate.”

As a record fleet of more than 400 boats prepares for the August 3 start of this year’s event Vaughan has published a second edition of his book as a digital work on Amazon, $15.95.

Vaughan has published a second edition of his book as a digital work on Amazon, $15.95, or click the following link to go directly to the Amazon link for 'Fastnet: One Man's Voyage" click here to buy 'Fastnet: One Man's Voyage'

The thirty- to forty-foot waves were closely spaced. Four hundred feet—measured from crest to crest— was the best estimate of Bruce Kendall, Kialoa’s sailing master.

Kendall is a brawny, taciturn New Zealander who has been with Kilroy as skipper and watch captain for eleven years. In that time he has sailed two hundred thousand miles over the world’s oceans. Kendall is a complete sailor. He can build boats, sail them, race them, and keep all systems running.

Kendall said that a typical South Seas storm might have larger waves, but they would be spaced normally at fifteen hundred feet, making them less steep. The seas of the Fastnet storm were very steep. Sailors call such seas “square,” perhaps because that is how they feel when a boat is trying to combat them—like too many miles of bad road.

Members of the daily press who wrote about the Fastnet storm described boats falling off the sides of these waves, implying that boats actually went airborne, landing kerplunk in the troughs. That was certainly an exaggeration on the part of landlocked writers who were doing their best to deliver the full dramatic treatment they thought the subject deserved. And it was, after all, a period of otherwise slow news.

But those writers were on the right track. What happened was this: As yachts that were moving along broadside to these waves were drawn up their sides, they would begin to lose buoyancy on the down (lee) side. This would increase their angle of heel. The higher they rose on the side of the wave, the steeper it would become and the more they would heel. Further, the wind speed was about twenty knots higher on the top of the wave than on the bottom. So here a yacht would be, already heeling at a hellish angle, getting slammed by an extra twenty knots of wind when she needed it least. If the wave happened to be breaking on top, she would get rocked by tons of water in addition. Smacko.

It was such a situation that knocked two Kialoa crewmen off the rail toward the middle of the boat where they fetched up on their lifelines with a jerk, and then bounced back to land on Jim Kilroy’s back. Kilroy had seen the cresting sea coming and braced himself on a winch. The two careening bodies crushed him against it, ribs first. He went grudgingly below in pain with two broken ribs and a protruding piece of dislocated cartilage that would be his permanent souvenir of the race.

The conditions put the mast tips of several fifty-footers in the water. Many forty-footers put their mast tips in the water for long counts while everything from anchors to frying pans and people were uprooted and flung about down below. And vessels under forty feet caught the most hell. Some of them rolled over completely, three hundred sixty degrees: mast tip in the water, mast tip pointing at the bottom, mast and rigging carried away as gravity reclaimed the keel, then popping right side up with lines and rigging and other gear looking like the aftermath of an explosion in a pasta factory. Olive oil on the over- head. And with people badly hurt, or gone, or maybe just half-drowned, scared to death.

It was a storm with a disposition frightening enough to cause strange behavior within the fleet. Like the sudden confidence exhibited in life rafts. There are good life rafts (not many), but even a good raft is only as reliable as its record of maintenance and safety inspection is long. On most boats the life raft is a joke. It shouldn’t be, and maybe life-raft technology will improve to the point that it won’t be, but at the present time the life raft is a cumbersome, heavy, required piece of gear with a reputation only slightly above that of the town drunk. Life rafts aren’t often spoken about without being preceded by a disparaging modifier, as in “the fucking (insert brand name).”

And yet many crews on yachts that were having a rough time went immediately to the life rafts. Even assuming that all the rafts launched were the best that money could buy and in perfect condition, this reaction remains a puzzlement. The first thing any kid learns before going boating is to stay with the boat if anything happens. Stay with the boat. Rule number one. It is posted on the camp bulletin board.

Later on, one perhaps runs into Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the same point is implicit. During that storm, the various noblemen on board scream their last words of despair into the gale and plunge into the sea. Prospero, whose magic caused the storm, asks the spirit Ariel, “Who was so firm, so constant, that this [turmoil] would not infect his reason?” And Ariel answers, “Not a soul but felt a fever of the mad, and play’d some tricks of desperation. All but mariners plung’d in the foaming brine and quit the vessel.”

All but mariners. Shakespeare’s vessel, with its mariners safely tucked below, survives the storm and makes it to a nearby port.

Of the three hundred three yachts in the Fastnet Race, only five went to the bottom. Those who have analyzed the grim tally agree that taking prematurely to life rafts was a major cause of death in the Fastnet Race.

The reason is clear: A raft was no match for that storm, even if it could have been successfully launched and boarded.

Seven of the fifteen deaths were raft-related.

Vaughan has published a second edition of his book as a digital work on Amazon, $15.95, or click the following link to go directly to the Amazon link for 'Fastnet: One Man's Voyage" click here to buy 'Fastnet: One Man's Voyage'

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