By Roger Vaughan
Editor’s note: On August 14, 1979, a rogue storm in the Irish Sea overtook the 303 yachts competing in the Fastnet Race. Twenty-four boats were abandoned including five that sank, and fifteen sailors lost their lives. Roger “Fingers” Vaughan was aboard Jim Kilroy’s 79-foot maxi sloop Kialoa.
Driving was exhausting. The helmsman needed encouragement. He faced painfully into blowing scud that stung like sand, looking for the optimum path through confused seas that lifted us up and up, and either rolled under us or struck us full force. The helmsman would yell a warning the moment he knew he had been beaten by one of the monsters. We would double our grip and tuck our heads in as thousands of gallons of solid water tried to batter us off the deck. We listened to gear straining, watched it working as the loads increased, felt the awesome forces tearing at the boat in a dozen directions at once from the sudden braking action of her bow slugging into a wave, or from waves falling on us broadside at the same time that heavy gusts struck. It didn’t seem possible that gear and vessel could bear such loads in combination with the terrible shocks they were receiving. One had to marvel at Kialoa’s performance, and also hope it was not short-lived.
The outhaul was the first to go. This was a piece of three-quarter-inch braided Dacron line rigged through a sheave at the end of the boom to the number-three reef cringle of the shortened sail. Its job was to stretch the foot of the sail taut along the boom. It had been chafing in the sheave, out of sight of our constant inspection for chafe, and it parted with the sound of a rifle shot.
The crew was so attuned to the possibility of gear failure that we all jumped at once, like sprinters coming off the blocks. Speed is of the essence when gear fails because the failure usually places an overload on other gear, with a potential domino effect. In this case, the reef cringle was also tied around the boom to hold it down, but now the mainsail had inched forward along the boom in puckers, putting great strain on small reef lines that went through lightly reinforced grommet holes in the sail itself. The whole middle of the sail could have been torn apart. Four men did a quick job reaving a new line and taking tension. They would get better at it. That outhaul would part twice more before the night was over.
As the positions got shuffled around on the rail, Fingers found himself sitting next to the running backstay wires. Two multistrand stainless wires were attached to the mast at heights of forty and sixty-six feet. They were joined together about eight feet off the deck by a metal plate from which a block was hung. Another wire of equal strength dead-ended on the deck, passed up through the block, ran back to the deck through another block, and aft to a large winch. This was the running backstay, whose job was to support the middle of the huge mast, keep it from collapsing forward from the strain of headsails, especially staysails, which do not hoist to the masthead. And it was a small staysail that was helping pull Kialoa through the night at twelve knots.
As reluctant as he was to move, since any movement was accomplished with great effort and discomfort, Fingers moved. There are certain unwritten rules of behavior that one has to believe in. Like really making sure that the oven has been turned off before leaving the house. Like getting up in the night to check an anchor line at the slightest suspicion of slippage. Like staying outside the “V” (“the slingshot”) formed by a line or cable under tension. Like keeping one’s distance from any heavily tensioned member of the rig unless performing a specific job. Bruce Kendall was very nearly killed a few years before when one of Kialoa’s big spinnaker guy wires snapped. The boat was racing in smooth water in Block Island Sound and took a big knockdown with the spinnaker set. Bruce was on the weather rail trying to organize the disaster party when the guy parted. Quick reflexes and some luck saved his life. He ducked, and the recoiling wire lashed him across the top of the head instead of the forehead or temple. It took eighty stitches to close him up. He had to wear a baseball batting helmet on the boat for two years. He still has a bump on his scalp that itches when someone asks him about it.
Fingers grabbed the running backstay wire and tested it. It felt like a rod, under big tension. He moved. Ten minutes later the block hanging from the metal plate exploded.
Several of the crew scrambled. The staysail was quickly lowered to take forward pressure off the mast. The main was trimmed to bring pressure aft. The deck lights came on. The mast was wobbling like it might have been made of plastic or hard rubber. It was a frightening sight to see the one thousand-seventy-three-pound, ninety-five-foot column of extruded, welded aluminum so out of control. Disaster seemed imminent. It felt like an awful loss of balance at a critical moment—catching an edge while streaking down a mountain on skis; stubbing a toe while crossing hurriedly against a flashing “don’t walk” sign in bad traffic. There didn’t seem to be any way the mast could take such a whipping for very long without coming down.
From the number of eyes darting glances aloft, it was a general expectation. For a moment after the failure, there was disorientation. There was so much wind and sea noise to cut through. It was difficult to see. Then we knew it was the runner. But where had it broken? Aloft, in the mast? On deck? Was it the wire? The wire was tested for twelve thousand five hundred pounds, the block for twenty-eight thousand. We were lucky it was the block, which turned out to have suffered a crystallized weldment. If it had been the wire to the mast, it would have taken hours to repair. And someone would have had to ascend that wobbly stick to do it. But one of the crew quickly scrambled to leeward and retrieved the metal plate, which was swinging around wildly. We got a line from the deck to the plate for temporary relief to the spar. It was done with one eye for the job and one eye for the mast. If the mast did fall there was no predicting which direction it would go. The thought made the back of Fingers’ neck prickle.
By the time a new block was attached to the plate and the wire reassembled, an hour had passed. But the mast was still standing. That was an immense credit to Hood Yacht Systems, that engineered and built it. But the boat was being sailed gingerly during that period. We spent an hour at half speed. Because it was thought the mast might have sustained serious damage, the staysail was not raised again. Without it, we were two knots slower.
But our priorities had shifted quite properly from racing to win, to racing to finish. Down one notch. It would cost us.
With the boat back on course and the crisis settled for the moment, we once again clipped onto the weather rail and huddled together, each of us privately assessing his personal discomfort, measuring energy reserves, checking endurance levels, and wondering how much worse it would get before it got better.
Fingers took a look around him and observed the night for the first time. Since he stepped on deck his attention had been buried in one job or another. He had seen the storm only peripherally. Now with time on his hands he focused on it and wondered if it was a dream.
Unlike the claustrophobic, ominous feel of most storms, this one presented the striking contrast of clear skies alight with a full complement of stars. Occasional clusters of low, fast-moving fleecy clouds would pass through. The moon was high, three-quarters full, and brilliant, illuminating the steep seas with cold, eerie light. When clouds masked it, its beams peeked through to dapple small patches of ocean with pure pounded silver. Astern, the Big Dipper was full to brimming.
It roared a special kind of beauty, this night. Beauty of the sort that cuts deep, leaves marks. Fingers had always relied upon the sea to restore him, and the sea had never let him down. He lived by it, fished and dreamed upon it, planned and schemed beside it. It nurtured him like a great mother. For him its beauty would never be surpassed. He knew that. But this night something shook him besides the howling gusts and their driven volleys of water that pressed his soaked inner garments against his chilled skin. Fingers sensed something. He was not a churchgoer, but at sea his agnosticism always faltered. At sea was when the concept of cosmic unity was most difficult to deny. This night it was impossible. Fingers felt out there, connected, wide open, hitched for a moment to a bit of business that is the stuff of man’s greatest fantasy. Awed, Fingers concentrated, engraving silver-blue images on his brain.
Kialoa was reaching at ten knots under reefed main only. Her fine racing bow sliced into the seas, carving off hunks of ocean that were splattered to either side as foam, heaved high into the air and blown into the sails. The water was thick with globs of phosphorescence that would stick on the sail and glow for a moment, or speed off to leeward on the wind like sparks from spent fireworks. From her mad dash through the storm, Kialoa was leaving a swath of pure white foam astern fully two hundred yards long that shimmered like a snowfield in the moonlight. Fingers yearned to watch Kialoa pass from a nearby vantage point. We must be a sight, he thought. ■
Originally published in 1979 and reissued in 2019, Fastnet: One Man’s Voyage is available as a print-on-demand book at choptankwordbank.com.
Roger Vaughan (rogervaughan.net) has written twenty books, six of them about sailing, and five biographies including Ted Turner, Herbert von Karajan, Victor Kovalenko, Harry Anderson, and Arthur Curtiss James. His first novel, Coming About, was released in September, 2021. To order a copy, visit amazon.com.