Left for dead

Nick Ward being rescued from Grimalkin. The last crew member to be rescued from Fastnet '79.
On Saturday morning I woke up to hear the news that the yacht, Cheeki Rafiki, had finally been found - upturned, missing its keel, and with the lifeboat still unused inside. There was no sign of the crew; the US coastguard called off their search. There was no chance now that the crew would be found alive.

I was saddened by the loss of the crew, but was also unusually troubled. The reason for this lay in the book that I had finished only the night before, Nick Ward's account of his disastrous experience in the Fastnet race of 1979, Left for dead.

Left for dead is a troubling account of what can go badly wrong at sea. Ward, an experienced sailor, set off in August 1979 to race a yacht, Grimalkin, from the Isle of Wight to the Fastnet rock off the coast of Southern Ireland, and back.

What none of the crews in that race could have known was that they were heading into the mother of all storms. By the time the forecast of Force 8-10 gales was issued, it was already too late for most of the boats, they were at the heart of the weather system. Even Force 10 was inaccurate, many of the boats, including the unfortunate Grimalkin hit Force 12s; the very highest level on the Beaufort Scale, equivalent to hurricane strength. With seas comparable to the Southern Ocean, and gale-force winds, Grimalkin was dismasted, and was subsequently knocked down several times. The skipper was washed away after the boat completely overturned. Three of the surviving crew-members then decided to leave the vessel, and get into the life-raft, presumably believing that Ward and his fellow crew-mate, Gerald Winks, were dead, or at least severely incapacitated, and trapped in the cockpit of the yacht.

Ward came to in the water, presumably following another knock-down, managed to haul himself back on board Grimalkin, and then spotted Winks dying in the water. He hauled him back on board, and then survived around 24 hours with the dying, subsequently dead Winks, until he became the last person to be rescued from the race. The storm left 15 dead, 5 boats had been sunk, 24 crews had to abandon ship, and 136 sailors were rescued. All this in the days before satellite navigation when trying to find a 30-50 foot boat at sea could be virtually impossible. The length of time that it's taken to find Cheeki Rifiki proving that it's still not an easy task.

Inevitably this is a one-sided narrative. There is very little from the three crew-members who abandoned ship, although Ward appears to have tried to get their responses. If he has misjudged them, I would guess it is understandable in the circumstances, and their silence suggests that perhaps he is not unduly inaccurate. Ward however isn't bitter about what happened, he just tells his side of the story. And tells it, I would guess, very much how it appeared at the time to him. Much of the time on board the boat during the storm is told in a sort of psychedelic haze. I would guess that Ward was pretty badly concussed. But it's an amazing tale, all the more amazing for the downbeat way in which it is told.

This is a tale of bravery, and of the endurance of the human spirit, even when it seems as though hope is lost. Not just Ward himself, who I'm sure would argue that he just did what he needed to in order to survive. There are the rescue crews who had an horrendous job, the crews of fellow yachts Tai Fat and Fragola, who remained in position when they spotted a fellow boat in distress, and helped guide the rescuers to Grimalkin, and the unknown crew-member (probably one of those who ended up in the life-raft) who attempted to rescue the doomed skipper.

At the heart of this tale though is the sheer force of nature, the sea in all its full horror. I think this was what so troubled me hearing the news about Cheeki Rifiki. My mind had spent several days at sea in the company of Nick Ward, and had some idea of the horrors that the crew might have suffered. Ultimately Ward's tale wasn't about who was right or wrong, it was man versus the elements, and who knows what any of us might do put in the same position.

For more information on the race and how other boats struggled through it, see the Guardian article. The full report on the race is here.


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