Naval rescuers’ finest hour remembered at Fastnet 40th anniversary

Serving and veteran aircrew, survivors and relatives will gather on Cowes on Friday [August 2nd] to mark the 40th anniversary of the Fastnet Race.

The storm which engulfed the 1979 yachting race from the Isle of Wight to the imposing rock off the south-west coast of Ireland sparked the UK’s biggest ever peacetime rescue operation – spearheaded by naval aviators from RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall.

Nineteen sailors died as their boats were battered by ferocious winds and huge waves – possibly up to 60ft high – smashing masts and rigging, washing sailors overboard, causing yachts to capsize or, in some cases, pitch-pole, tumbling end over end.

Nineteen yachtsmen died in the disaster which reached its climax on August 13 and 14 1979 – but 75 people were saved by Fleet Air Arm crews and another 65 picked up by lifeboats and shipping.

Fifteen helicopters from Culdrose were committed. Anyone with search and rescue experience was recalled from their summer holiday, and extra helicopters and crews were sucked in from other naval air bases including Yeovilton and HMS Gannet in Prestwick.

Many of the stories of the aircrews pulling off daring rescues in the face of mountainous seas are truly hair-raising. The Royal Navy – and Culdrose in particular – is rightly proud of the courage and dedication shown by its aircrews and ground staff in this huge rescue operation: 15 helicopters and hundreds of personnel working around the clock. A great many people - elsewhere in the military, lifeboat crews and many others – also risked their own lives to save others. The Fastnet disaster and serves as stark reminder of the dangers of the sea.

Lieutenant Commander Alex Stevenson, HMNB Culdrose’s Operations Officer

Alongside the navy were 14 RNLI lifeboats which rescued yachtsmen and towed damaged yachts back to port.

Three RAF helicopters, seven warships, four trawlers and four other ships supported the effort, while overhead four RAF Nimrods helped to coordinate the search effort over 10,000 square miles of ocean. In all, around 4,000 military and civilians were involved in the huge rescue mission.

The Fleet Air Arm handed over civilian search and rescue duties to the Coastguard at the beginning of 2016, but many SAR veterans continue to serve and, crucially, rescue training continues unabated as RN helicopter crews have a duty to rescue military personnel in peril at sea – from warships sinking or in difficulty, to saving aircrew forced to ditch.

And there’s still a sizeable number of search-and-rescue veterans serving such as Culdrose’s operations officer Lieutenant Commander Alex Stevenson.

He spent ten years as an observer with 771 Naval Air Squadron and fully understands the dangers both the sailors and rescuers faced 40 years ago.

A monument in the grounds of Culdrose to those who died in the tragedy – including two men rescued by the Helston-based airmen who subsequently died.

The service of remembrance takes place at 6pm.