COWES WEEK 1979 had contained most of the usual ingredients which make it such an enjoyable Festival of Sailing. We had experienced the inevitable drifting days and the storm force winds of Thursday, the dances, the excitements and disappointments. As such it was a week like most Cowes Weeks. But this year was to be different.
I had taken delivery, seven weeks previously, of Allamanda II, a new Jeremy Rogers Offshore One Design 34 (OOD 34) which we had raced continuously from the time she was handed over. By the Friday of Cowes Week, the log had recorded 1,277 miles.
The next race in our programme was the Fastnet Race beginning on Saturday. That would add a further 600 miles.
I had never before competed in a Fastnet Race, and my offshore racing experience consisted of no more that a few races to Deauville and the 200 mile Morgan and Colin Campbell (my Grandfather) Cup race a few weeks earlier. I must confess to feelings of apprehension.
All my crew had sailed with me during the season and I counted myself lucky that they provided a lot of the experience which I lacked.
My skipper/navigator was Angus Gavin, an architect and the brother-in-law of Hamish Janson, my partner in campaigning the boat, Ken Freivokh and his crewman Peter Gill had been racing Ken’s Class 6 boat during Cowes Week and now brought their skills to Allamanda. Ken was also an architect and Peter was a lecturer. (P.S. Ken is now a world renowned super yacht stylist). John Lushington, a tea trader from the Meon Valley in Hampshire, was our cook as well as contributing at least twelve years of ocean racing experience. Robert Leigh-Wood was a stockbroker who was the only member of my crew who had sailed with me in my previous boat (Allamanda, a Swan 36). Lastly there was Steve Ashley, a New Zealander then living in England.
Before the race, Cowes Roads and the mouth of the Medina were alive with yachts and spectator boats. We slipped our mooring and headed to the outer limit of the starting line, where things were only a little less crowded.
The start was at 1350. The wind was light and from the south west, and we settled down to a steady beat to the Needles.
The order of starting the Classes for the Fastnet is in inverse order of size: this means that the spectators on shore and in following craft have the spectacle of the larger boats slicing through the fleet.
The wind picked up a bit once we were past Gurnard and by 1600 hours we were bouncing up and down in a lumpy sea and 15 knots of wind on the edge of the Shingles. The Admirals Cup boats and the Maxis were by now sailing through us.
We had decided to have two watches of three with Angus Gavin as skipper/navigator being on permanent call and snatching his sleep when he could. Now that we were heading out into the Channel and well settled down we started watches from 2000, with my watch taking first turn.
Before this, however, there was the important matter of dinner and it was not long before John was causing some very appetising aromas to waft from the galley. We had sirloin steak with a delicious gravy and a Béarnaise sauce with more than a hint of garlic thrown in followed by fruit and cheese – the good life indeed.
We passed Portland Bill at about midnight and by 0400 were within a mile of the East Channel Buoy. My watch came on for their first turn of the new day, Sunday, 12th August. At about 0500 we entered a fog bank – the condition at sea that I feared the most.
I have a claustrophobic dread of being locked into a damp mass of fog, with no wind and the only noise the rattle of the rigging on the mast and the occasional slam as the boom moves from side to side in a vain search for a breeze. The effort of keeping a visual and listening watch is very tiring and if any reasonable-sized vessel appears on a collision course, there is little chance of being able to move in time.
That morning the visibility rose and fell from 50 to 300 yards. We saw and heard a number of vessels, some very close by us, but their fog horns made us aware of them in good time.
Then just before the end of our watch – when visibility was as its worst – I saw the bows of a very large tanker emerge from the foggy dawn astern, the vessel, a Greek, whispered past no more than 30 yards from us at a good 10-12 knots.
The quietness of its engines and propellers were further deadened by the fact it was coming at us head on, but the element of surprise was really heightened by the total lack of any fog horn.
All that day we were deprived of sun by the confounded fog. By about 1800 hours we emerged from the fog bank and soon afterward we had the Eddystone Lighthouse off our starboard bow; Angus, with the aid of his sextant, estimated it to be 1 ½ miles distant.
Away from the fog we had a freshening wind under an overcast sky which decanted the occasional drizzly shower on us
By midnight we could see the loom of the Lizard Light
Monday 13th! No-one commented on the date but as we struggled up on deck at four o’clock that morning to start our watch I should have realised that it was going to be one of those days.
The fog had returned and with it the drizzle and a drop in wind – first to ten knots then to nothing.
We struggled to cover 8 miles during our watch and only at 0800 hours did we finally claw our way round the Longships light. We rounded in company with a number of other boats mostly Class IV, which rather depressed us as a guide to our position in the fleet.
At 1030 hours with the wind picking up from the SW and the distance from the Lands End coastal radio station ever increasing I made a ship to shore link call to my wife in Bembridge. I do not think I conveyed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, because I could not honestly admit to having enjoyed much of the race so far and there was little about the weather prospect to make me think that the rest of it would be any better.
During the next few hours my fitful sleep was further disturbed by a steady increase in wind strength, necessitating a number of sail changes.
The weather forecast at 1355 hours was our first confirmation of the sort of weather the clouds were threatening for us. Even so it warned of no more than the occasional force 7 with the wind veering to the West.
At 1430 hours we heard gale warnings of South to S.W. force 8 in Lundy and Irish Sea. Angus decided to take us well west of the rhumb line in anticipation of the gale and of the wind veering. At about 1500 hours, we encountered Checkmate, another OOD34 and a consistent winner of our class; this improved our morale considerably after our depressions at being surrounded by so many class IV boats at Longships.
By 2045 hours Checkmate had hoisted her spinnaker and run off to leeward, the barometer had dropped 13 mille bars and the sky was dark and squally. We reckoned the gale was not far away.
As the wind speed steadily increased we altered course. We tried to get the Lands End Radio weather report at 2103 but were out of range.
By 2300 hours the wind was gusting 40 knots and still strengthening, the seas were beginning to build up to about twelve feet but Allamanda was sailing beautifully and we were making good boat speed. The barometer had fallen to 994 mille bars.
Then just before midnight, as the watch was changing there was a sudden squall which sent the windspeed indicator to 50 knots and then beyond.
John Lushington was at the helm and I was sitting by him, we were talking about changing sails when suddenly everything was very quiet and the boat was stationary. The mast had snapped off cleanly just above the coach roof and was lying across the deck with the masthead pointing far ahead over the starboard bow.
All the crew reacted as if they had been practising cutting away an entire rig in a heavy sea all their lives: the boltcroppers and hacksaw were brought up and all the standing rigging was cut.
The sails were dipping in the sea to leeward and were a danger if a heavy sea fell on top of them thus helping to turn us over. So we took a knife to the main to sever it from the boom – much to the dismay of Steve, who, as a sailmaker, considered this the ultimate sin.
While everybody was doing such a magnificent job on deck in extremely dangerous conditions, I had been firing distress flares at regular intervals and trying to steer the boat to keep her head to the wind.
Within a very short time one, then a second boat, were standing by us. But the seas had built up with alarming speed to about 20 feet and there was no way that either of them could come very close.
We carried a radio telephone so we should have been able to communicate with them. But with the loss of our mast we also lost our aerial and with no secondary aerial or anything to attach a makeshift one to, we were down to Morse code on a flashlight.
The first boat, which we later discovered was ‘Trophy‘, left us in the hands of the second larger boat which we took to be Morningtown. Trophy was to have her own share of trouble soon after and suffer the tragic loss of three of her crew.
We had cleared the rig overboard and started the engine, and now flashed to Morningtown the word C-O-R-K, as Angus had estimated that we had sufficient fuel for 100 miles and that Cork was 80 miles away.
During the period when we were setting off flares, Ken Freivokh had ignited a red hand flare which had obviously been designed to cause the maximum inconvenience and danger during its burning: this it achieved by letting drip burning globules of phosphorous on to the holder’s hand or on the deck of the boat.
In this case both suffered considerable burning. Ken’s hand being the more painful. I therefore took Ken’s place with Robert Leigh-Wood and Peter Gill and the rest went below to try and grab some well-earned rest.
It was now Tuesday 14th: how I hoped the passing of the 13th would improve our fortunes.
Deciding that there was at least a 50-50 chance that we might have to take to the liferaft, I took it from its tight fitted location in the lazarette and placed it on the cockpit floor to facilitate its launching.
The weather was on the port quarter and we were riding the waves reasonably well: the odd one hit us pretty hard and sometimes we would fall off the tops, but on the whole we felt that we were coping adequately.
I had been on the helm for nearly two hours, with Peter Gill sitting next to me on the starboard side and Robert with his back to the weather on the port quarter. I had got into a certain rhythm steering the boat across each wave and my eyes had become fixed at the elevation of the crest.
Suddenly, much sooner than the previous wave than it should have been, and seemingly from a more Northerly direction, I saw a wall of water bearing down on the boat.
I shouted some futile warning to the others as my eyes turned skywards in search of the top of this horrifying wave – I never saw it.
The next thing I remember was an incredible force of water hitting my chest, and then silence. I do not remember fear only a sense of annoyance at the thought of the futility of dying like that. Then I realised that I had a rope around my neck.
I struggled for some time to free myself, aware of a strange brightness in the water around me. Soon after I got the rope off my neck there was a jerk on my lifeline and the silence was shattered by the howling of the wind and the crashing of the waves.
All three of us had bobbed up to the surface and were strung along the starboard quarter like three large fenders. I grasped the side of the deck and gulped the air.
A welcome outline of bodies started emerging from the companion way. As Angus pulled me aboard I would have swapped his bearded face for an angel any day!
Peter and I were lying in the cockpit like a couple of stranded fish when we heard Robert calling out in pain. Because his lifeline was secured to the boat’s portside pushpit and he was hanging over the starboard quarter, his line and harness were stretched so taut that he was unable to swing his body back on to the boat.
The tightness was such that when we tried to lift him in by a rope around his thighs it caused acute pain. Having secured him with another line I cut his lifeline with the carving knife. He was still in pain and I could not get his harness to loosen, so I took the knife to that as well. This finally gave the poor chap some relief and we hoisted him aboard.
Now the job of assessing damage began. The three of us who had been overboard went below to help in tidying up.
Chaos definitely reigned supreme – the cooker had broken loose from the portside galley and hurtled across the cabin to smash the window over the chart table: food and clothes had been decanted from their lockers and were a multi-coloured scum on the 12 to 18 inches of water which covered the cabin floor: the engine, while inverted, had poured oil into the mixture to make it just that little more unpleasant.
The washboards had fallen out so we broke up the saloon table to create a passable substitute which kept out most of the water from the waves which were constantly breaking over the cockpit.
The engine was of no use because the batteries had shorted out and the acid had decanted.
The most serious of our losses outside the cabin was the life raft.
The force of the rolling over had jettisoned the valise and it had inflated. When we rolled back again the inflated craft was flying around in the air; John Lushington and Steve Ashley took a tremendous risk in going forward and dragging it along the side of the boat to the starboard quarter.
I shall not forget how the wind lifted and upended it as if it were a toy balloon.
Although we secured it as well as we could we had little illusions about it being with us for long and indeed at about 0400 hours it finally severed connections and disappeared in the spume and spray. We had also lost the remaining distress flares , the kedge line, the spare engine oil and the reserve fuel.
All of us were now below and the serious job of pumping began: the pump was constantly blocked by the countless small packets of dried food, clothing, tea bags etc., which were in the bilge.
A few of us, including me, were hit by seasickness. I was guiding the end of the bilge pump around the obstacles and trying to keep it from being blocked, so I was luckier than some in being able to use the pump to clear up any problems of my own making!
I suppose I must have swallowed a fair amount of sea water while I was under the boat and this must have contributed to my sickness – anyway, after this bout I was not sick again.
When we had got most of the water out, Angus checked around the hull and deck and we were much relieved to find that we were not making any water and that there were no signs of cracks or any other damage.
I fell on to a soggy bunk in my sodden clothes, pulled a sodden blanket over my head and went to sleep shivering.
Angus and John kept watch until daylight. By that time the barometer had begun to crawl upwards.
I think we all felt comparatively safe, unless another rogue wave should hit us. Occasionally we were badly shaken as we fell off a wave, and waves frequently broke over the boat filling the cockpit with water.
At 0600 hours we tried to listen to the news. Without an aerial we only picked up very broken reception at the top of each wave, but we heard enough to realise that we were by no means the only boat with problems and that a massive rescue operation was under way.
I suppose this encouraged us, but the forecast of the continuing gales damped us down again.
Soon afterwards we began to see signs of the rescue operation in action. A Nimrod flew across our bow and then made a much closer return sweep.
All we had to attract its attention were some white hand flares and a red jacket to wave. They did not show any sign of recognition. This occurred twice more during the day and the Nimrod’s seeming inability to spot us became progressively more depressing.
We also saw a Dutch destroyer which passed so close that when I waved frantically at them the crew lining the deck waved back. That, at least, made us believe that someone was masterminding the whole operation and had got us plotted, to deal with in good time.
From such beliefs grow great faith.
I was feeling thoroughly miserable, cold, wet and disenchanted with ocean racing. In retrospect I curse the fact that someone did not punch me on the nose and get me out of my torpor – if only so that I could have put on some clothes that might have been a little dryer.
By late afternoon we had seen the barometer make a steady climb and the leaden sky begin to break into cloud formations with just a hint of sun shining through them. The wind strength was definitely dropping and the waves had lost their towering whiplash effect and become much longer and rolling.
Just after we had faintly heard the broken transmission of the 1755 weather forecast (backing S.W. with Force 8 gale continuing) a Class I yacht (Cayman) under bare poles with crew in the cockpit suddenly appeared off the top of a wave astern of us.
She motored as close as she could and we shouted her to radio our position and our plight – no mast, no engine, no liferaft, no flares, no radio – and request a tow.
As we were trying to pass the message a helicopter appeared from nowhere and hovered over us. We tried to convey that we needed a tow but the winchman indicated that we ought to get off the boat.
We had a hurried conference and at least two of my crew said they were prepared to stay on board if I wanted. Angus suggested that I should go on the helicopter to find out the true weather position.
The lineman swung down to Allamanda’s cockpit and handed me the spare harness which I slipped over my head, after one or two false starts and the frightening sight of surplus line winding itself round one of the broken stanchions, the line tightened and we were swinging under a whirling mass of machinery hovering 30 feet above the boat.
I kept my eyes firmly elevated and very soon I was touching the bottom of the helicopter and pushing my way round to the open door.
Once in and free of the harness I went to the winch man: above the incredible noise of the engine I shouted through his helmet and asked what the forecast was and he soon convinced me that if we did not come off now we were not only lunatics but he was not going to be around to pick up the pieces.
There was no other sensible choice. I could not have lived with a situation where someone had been lost or injured because of refusing this opportunity.
I sat on the floor behind the pilot and navigator and the rest of the crew started swinging in and crawled forward to join me. We looked a very ragged bunch: only Angus with his beard, did not show untidy stubble.
When we were all safely aboard, the Sea King hovered at about 40 feet. As she turned we saw our refuge for the past three days as our rescuers has seen her and realised how puny and insignificant she was in those seas.
Being a white hull and grey deck with no mast, she was almost impossible to pick out in the spuming, spray-flecked seas unless you were immediately overhead.
Within minutes we saw another dismasted yacht, and the whole process began again. This was a French yacht called Billy Bones and soon their crew of six joined us in the very limited space. We now had seventeen on board, including the crew; there was no room for more so we set off for the mainland.
Since it was too noisy for speech, during the 40 minutes flight to Culdrose we could only sit on the floor and look at each other. The Sea King’s crew were all unshaven and looked dead beat – I later learned that they had been flying almost non stop sorties for twelve hours and were to go straight out again after they landed us.
My admiration and eternal gratitude was, and is, immeasurable.
We crossed the coast at St. Ives; ahead were the fields of Cornwall looking truly beautiful in the late afternoon sun. Then a descent, a swing into wind and we were on terra firma at Culdrose. The ground crew were already refuelling the Sea King as the door was opened and the gangway wheeled up.
As we left the helicopter we could only grasp the hands of the crew and nod or give a thumbs up sign in what seemed a pathetic expression of thanks for such a magnificent effort on our behalf.
On the apron there were two minibuses, a number of orderlies and a Surgeon Lt. Commander. There were no serious injuries so we were all taken in the minibuses to the sick bay a few hundred yards away. There we realised the enormity of the problem which the men of Culdrose had been landed with.
Everywhere there were piles of sailing clothes, harnesses and life jackets. Other survivors wandered around in states of dress from nothing to borrowed navy kit.
Our clothes soon joined the other piles and we were hustled into delicious warm baths. There, an orderly came to take our particulars, details of any injuries and to issue us with pyjamas; then to a bed in a ward where we were served a magnificent meal of fried eggs, bacon, sausages and tomatoes and continuous cups of hot, sweet tea.
I loathe tea but I think I drank three mugfuls without thinking.
I then had to go to the sick bay for a tetanus injection, because I had cut the skin between my forefinger and thumb and through the muscles. It had been open too long to be stitched so they cleaned it out and strapped it.
I got word to our relatives and then we were moved from the sick bay to make room for more survivors. As we left three more came in, but sadly one was already dead.
I thought that I would have slept like a top that night but surprisingly sleep did not come easily, partly due to my six foot four frame not fitting into a five foot six bed and partly due to the difficulty of trying not to lie on my bruised ribs.
We were woken at about 0700 and taken to the Mess Hall for breakfast; there we had a gargantuan fry up and between mouthfuls were interviewed by a Dutch television crew.
We had decided over breakfast on our respective destinations: Angus and Robert were going to Plymouth to meet up with Angus’ father’s yacht and to help me co-ordinate a search and salvage operation for Allamanda. Ken and Peter were going back to London.
John, Steve and myself were going to Reading where we were to be collected by my Mother and taken back to my house near Alton.
At 1530 hours she met us at Reading station.
I should say that my Mother, at the age of 70, still fancied herself as a racing driver, and that state of mind was perhaps further fuelled by her sense of relief at having her only son safely back. As we sped through the Reading traffic, overtaking at impossible places and the big Jensen lurching around tight bends, John leaned over to me and said ‘It seems a shame if we have to die on the roads after everything we’ve just been through’.
What could I say, except ‘I promise you, worse things happen at sea’?
Allamanda II was later found lying off the Scilly Isles by a Panamanian freighter. She was salvaged, towed back to Plymouth, and was re-rigged and repaired. In October we sailed her back to Hamble.
On 2nd, June 1981 I presented a glass decanter on a rosewood base to the R.O.R.C. The decanter was engraved with a picture of the Sea King helicopter taking us off Allamanda and with the words ‘The Culdrose Trophy’. On the stopper was engraved the crests of the R.N.A.S. and the R.O.R.C. The Trophy was presented ‘in grateful recognition of the heroic rescue operation executed by R.N.A.S. Culdrose during the Fastnet Race 1979’ – to be competed for in the Fastnet Race and to be awarded to the first service crew to round the Rock.