1979 Fastnet: the view from Tenacious

Author:
Publish date:

A Connecticut man looks back at the infamous race, the deadly storm and skipper Ted Turner

Rives Potts is no rookie when it comes to sailing. The 54-year-old general manager of Brewer Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook, Conn., has been crewing for nearly 30 years, and says he’s competed in just about every major sailing race in the world — including 16 Bermuda races, 11 Southern Ocean Racing Conferences and five America’s Cup campaigns. Most notably, Potts crewed for Dennis Conner aboard Freedom, helping win the 1980 America’s Cup.

One of his most memorable competitions, Potts says, was the disastrous 1979 Fastnet Race. It was a sunny day Aug. 11 when 303 yachts set off from the Isle of Wight, off the coast of southern England. A storm blew over the nearby Irish Sea two days after the start, pounding the fleet. With gale-force winds and towering seas, 218 yachts, having either retired or sank, did not complete the race. Fifteen sailors died.

Potts was aboard the 61-foot Sparkman & Stephens, Tenacious, with skipper Ted Turner, who had won the America’s Cup in 1977. Turner and his crew not only managed to navigate the course safely — they also won the race.

“I’d had seen some pretty rough weather before — and this was a bad one,” Potts says. “Unlike today, we didn’t have GPS or great weather forecasts. We knew the wind was going to be building, but had no idea it’d be as bad as it was.”

British yachtsman Weston Martyr created the Fastnet Race in 1925. Its 618-mile course starts at the Isle of Wight, rounding Fastnet Rock off the coast of southwest Ireland and finishing at Plymouth, England. In 1957 the race became the final event in the five-part Admiral’s Cup, but has since been reestablished as a stand-alone event.

In regards to surviving the fierce storm, Potts says Tenacious and her crew had a number of advantages over other boats.

“I know we had just turned around the rock,” Potts recalls, “and I think the storm hit an hour or so later. It was good for us, Tenacious being one of the larger, stronger ships. We weren’t thrown around as much as the smaller ones.

“It was also good for us, psychologically, getting hit after we had turned the Rock, and were sailing with the wind and the waves towards the finish,” Potts adds. “She was a sturdy boat and we had a good crew. We had some tense moments, though, like when the water was coming in over the deck so hard and fast that if you weren’t strapped in with a tether, you’d be gone. It was rough.”

Potts remembers one moment he says was one of the most stressful for him during the race.

“A huge wave hit us and covered the boat,” says Potts. “The mainsail took on a huge amount of water. We saw this, scrambled to the rail but didn’t know what to do. The storm was getting worse and we were afraid the boom might break. I took out my knife and decided to slit that sail. Then I remember [Turner] popped his head out of the hatch. He said people were drowning, dying, and the wind was going to be dropping below 60 knots soon. With that, we shook out the reef and never stopped racing.”

According to John Rousmaniere’s book, “Fastnet, Force 10” (W.W. Norton & Company, 1980), the storm raged on from 10 p.m., Aug. 13, until about 6 p.m., Aug. 14. Winds whipped at 48 to 55 knots, and seas towered as high as 55 feet. Six men were lost overboard when their safety harnesses broke, nine others drowned and 136 people had to be rescued. Only 13 of 180 boats 38-feet or smaller that started the race finished.

The race, at least aboard Tenacious, Potts admits, “was very intense … but it was also a lot of fun. Because of [Turner], his charisma or whatever you want to call it, he made it a lot of fun. He had a way about him. He didn’t do things like other skippers.

“We loved being on our own. We loved the camaraderie of it all,” Potts adds. “We all got to be good friends. Plus we did pretty well. We won the race. That made up for a lot, too.”

The fleet of the 2005 incarnation of Fastnet, now named Rolex Fastnet Race, is scheduled to cross the starting line Aug. 7.