On August 14, 1979, 15 sailors died off the coast of England, the greatest loss of life in the history of yacht racing. Now one survivor tells his story.
A fleet of 300 boats took part in the U.K.’s Fastnet Race. The plan was to navigate 608 miles to the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse on the Irish coast, then sail home again across the Irish Sea past the Isle of Wight and England. Ward, not quite 24, was aboard the 30-foot sloop Grimalkin with five shipmates. “The kicking strap, the vang, which held the main boom down, flattening the main sail, was winched, sweated in, tensioned as hard as we could get it,” he writes, in full nautical parlance. “The spinnaker and jockey poles were checked, clipped and lashed.” They ran into a spooky, foggy calm. The gulls were gone, and then the wind came up. In a night of fierce rain, spray and spume, a force 12 storm hit. Hope fell with the barometer. The injured skipper was lost in the sea. Secured to the vessel with a line, Ward, subject to epilepsy, lost consciousness. When he awoke, three crewmen and the life raft were gone. His remaining mate succumbed to hypothermia. Dehydrated and cold, Ward was stranded in a dismasted, foundering craft with a dead companion, whom he chatted up in his delirium. His survival depended largely on instinct. His torrential narrative presents a remarkable seafaring saga that will have readers aching for the eventual rescue. Grimalkin never went down, and Ward was saved by the Royal Navy. The mates who abandoned him never expressed remorse.
A harrowing, thrilling, first-person tale of survival in the sea.