Everyone will be commenting on Woodstock today, which started on this day fifty years ago, and most will tell you they were there, but we all could not have been in that half-million crowd. They say no one could remember being there with all the drugs that were passed around. I personally think that anyone old enough to have been at Woodstock probably has Alzheimer’s disease by now and wouldn’t remember anything from that long ago.
For my money, the deadly Fastnet sailing race from forty years ago is well worth recalling. It was chronicled in the excellent book, Fastnet Force Ten by John Rousmaniere. The 600-mile race is held every two years and happened that year to coincide with a significant storm of vastly underestimated strength. Winds were once measured by a scale established by Sir Francis Beaufort, from force 1 (0-1 MPH) to force 12 (72-82 MPH). The officially measured winds in the Fastnet storm were force 10 (55-63 MPH), but some boats reported still higher measurements. Added to the winds was the fact that the wind direction changed as the storm moved through, resulting in confused wave conditions that made controlling the boats even more challenging.
Three hundred boats entered the race and of those, 75 capsized, 24 we’re abandoned and five sank outright. Fifteen sailors and four spectators were lost. The rescue attempts were the largest British peacetime effort ever.
Only 86 boats finished the race, many of which were damaged. Ted Turner, of CNN fame, won the race in the Sparkman and Stephens designed Tenacious. He had famously won the America’s Cup two years earlier.
The 1979 Fastnet Race led to a series of investigations and to more seaworthy designs for future sailboats, particularly those intended for racing. Its lessons are still used today in setting safety at sea standards.
There have been other racing disasters since then, including the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race in which six sailors died and five boats were lost.
All this reminds me of a quote by Buzzy Trent, “Waves are not measured in feet or inches, but in increments of fear.” And also that by E.B. White, “I cannot not sail.”