“There was a long oily swell and very little wind,” Harold Cudmore recalled more than 40 years later. “We realized there was bad weather coming. So, we had the last supper because we weren’t going to eat again. We headed into nightfall… We were going to get a beating. The glass was falling something like three millibars an hour.”
It was mid-August 1979, and an unsuspecting fleet of more than 300 hundred boats was headed for the Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland. They were all racing in the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s biennial classic, the Fastnet Race. In the space of the next 24 hours, 24 crews would abandon ship, battered by 60-knot winds and 40-foot breaking waves. Eighteen lives were lost among those who were competing and those who came to rescue them. It was the greatest tragedy in modern sailboat-racing history.
At the time, I was a young dinghy sailor racing out of a small, unfashionable club a long way from Cowes and the Solent, the hub of British ocean racing. The only story that reached me from that storm was triumphant, not tragic, and its star was Harold Cudmore. An Irishman, Cudmore carved a stellar career across several decades, encompassing wins at world championships and the America’s Cup, when he was part of Bill Koch’s successful defense in 1992.
In 1979, Cudmore was racing with his countrymen as a tactician on a 44-foot yacht called Golden Apple of the Sun in the Irish Admiral’s Cup team. Golden Apple was, as Harold put it, “one of the glamour boats of the year,” and it was turning out to be a good year. At the start of the Fastnet, the Irish were leading 18 other national teams.
Early on the morning of August 14, with the storm reaching its peak, Golden Apple of the Sun was the first of the Admiral’s Cup yachts around the Fastnet Rock. The boat turned for the Scilly Islands in a world of monstrous waves and howling spray, and when the wind shifted far enough aft, the crew hoisted the spinnaker. Cudmore took some precautions: He had a man strapped to the mast armed with a flare gun. The instructions were simple. If the helm started to lose control, shoot the flare through the spinnaker.
The appeal to a teenage boy disconnected from the tragic realities of that storm is obvious. What nerve, what bravado. Men and women were abandoning yachts all over the Western Approaches, and here was the piratical Cudmore, hurtling through this awesome storm with the spinnaker set and only a flare gun to separate death from glory.
A few years later, I started my pro sailing career with Cudmore’s 1987 British America’s Cup team, and then we raced the Fastnet together in 1989. We even rounded the legendary lighthouse on another wild, black night—but I only recently got around to asking him about the 1979 race.
“We got around the rock, and it was 52 knots across the deck. I remember looking at the dials as we rounded,” he told me. “We were over-canvassed, we had two reefs in the main. We speared off, and fairly shortly afterwards, when it began to really kick in, we dropped the mainsail. Later we dropped the jib and replaced it with the storm jib. [The wind] was west and then round to northwest. We ended up running back to the Scillys.”
This was the moment for the spinnaker. “We survived the night driving pretty hard, and then come morning it began to ease up and the sea began to build some length into it, and so it was less threatening,” Cudmore continued. “We put the main back up, and I remember saying to the guys, ‘We’re down to 35 knots, we should put the spinnaker up.’ It was the only time—you know what I’m like in a boat—the only time I had a strike. ‘We will not!’ So, we settled for a boomed-out number-two jib. The guys were up on deck to do that when the rudder broke.”
It was the end of their Fastnet. There had been no spinnaker, no flare gun. The crew of Golden Apple had eventually chosen to take a proffered lift ashore with a helicopter that was finishing operations for the day. “The only thing of note that came from that was the note we left on the chart table saying, ‘Gone for lunch,’” Cudmore added. The yacht was later safely recovered, but they were done—the race, the Admiral’s Cup, all gone.
When they were running before a storm, the skippers were said to have chained a man to the main mast, armed with an ax to cut the halyards if the helmsman lost control. If there was one thing that boats built to the International Offshore Rule didn’t need with the spinnaker up, it was extra weight near the bow.
I told Cudmore the story I’d heard more than four decades ago, and his reaction was immediate. “That’s an old story that dates a generation before my time. I heard the story back when I was a kid. It’s an apocryphal story,” he said, before explaining further. “I think the story related back to after the second World War, when you could buy these Very pistols, and the word was…that if you were caught with a sail up in heavy conditions and the halyard jams, what do you do? You fire a Very pistol into the sail—seamanship in the 1950s!”
I did some research, and the story has even older antecedents, back with the clipper ships. When they were running before a storm, the skippers were said to have chained a man to the main mast, armed with an ax to cut the halyards if the helmsman lost control. If anything, the story about the square rigger is more plausible. If there was one thing that boats built to the International Offshore Rule didn’t need with the spinnaker up, it was extra weight near the bow. I suspect that this knowledge, once acquired, was the reason I took so long to talk to Harold Cudmore about it—why wreck a great tale with the truth?
John Rousmaniere’s book Fastnet, Force 10 is probably the most authoritative account of the storm, and he tells of the need for the survivors to talk it down, to somehow “inoculate ourselves against the awareness that, at its worst, the storm was much more dangerous than, say, the 1972 Bermuda Race gale, and that there had been excellent reason to be frightened.” So, was the sailing community reaching for a time-honored myth and recasting it to feel more comfortable with the ferocious challenge of that storm?
If so, there is a reason to puncture these tall tales of daring with a cold dose of reality. In reshaping the experience in this way, the flare-gun story feeds our natural overconfidence and makes these storms less frightening. The effect might be slight, but no one should be going out there without fully understanding what they might be taking on. “It was a pretty wild night, no doubt about it,” Cudmore told me, 40 years too late. “I would be terrified if I was out there today, knowing what I know.”