A memorial service was held on Cape Clear Island on August 23 to remember those who died in the Fastnet tragedy of 1979. Facilitated by Norma McElligott, in her capacity as a Humanist Chaplain, the ceremony drew a large crowd in memory of the 15 yachtsmen and six spectators who lost their lives in the tragedy.
In 1979, The Fastnet race began in fine weather and high spirits but in the space of 48 hours the event turned into every sailor’s worst nightmare. A violent force 10 storm swept across the Irish Sea, catching sailors and weather forecasters completely unawares.
This freak storm wreaked absolute havoc in an era without the modern navigational aids that we take for granted today. Crews who escaped to the presumed safety of an inflatable raft were horrified to see their rafts disintegrate under the force of the waves.
More than 300 boats began the race but only 85 boats reached the finishing line in Plymouth; five boats sank and many more were abandoned. The remainder left the race to seek coastal shelter where they could.
The Fastnet tragedy prompted an exhaustive official inquiry, the final paragraph of which read, ‘The sea showed us that it can be a deadly enemy and those who go to sea for pleasure must do so in full knowledge that they may encounter dangers of the highest order.’
As a result of the comprehensive investigations following the tragedy, compulsory safety precautions were put in place that have since saved many lives.
In 2003, as part of Lifeboat day, Cape Clear islanders erected a stone in the harbour with the names of the 15 competitors who were lost in the race. Guy Pendred contacted the committee and reminded them that it was not only competitors who had lost their lives but also six spectators, from two boats that had been shadowing the race, including his own father Richard Pendred.
Those spectators were Richard Pendred, Peter Pickering, Olivia Davidson, John Dix, Denis Benson and David Moore. The Cape Clear committee arranged for these six names to be added to the memorial stone.
Guy Pendred was in attendance at the August 23 ceremony in Cape Clear, along with his mother Sally. He spoke movingly of his memories at the age of twelve of being told his father had died at sea. On behalf of himself and his family, Guy thanked the committee, and especially Mary O’Driscoll, for acknowledging their loss by adding the names to the stone. .
Norma McElligott reminded people at the ceremony that, “when it comes to it we are challenged as human beings to accept that some things are beyond our control; it is hard to put a meaning to such an event, all we can do is learn from it.”
Anne O’Regan spoke of the losses endured by many island families over the years and a minute’s silence gave those present time to reflect.
Norma McElligott concluded the ceremony by acknowledging the Trojan work done by the Lifeboat Service in the ‘Fastnet 79’ and ‘Baltimore 15’ events, as well as many other rescue missions.
“The Lifeboat Service has shone a light and given back hope to so many in their darkest hours. It continues to be a beacon of hope, especially in coastal communities.”