Surviving The Fastnet Storm

The story of two J/30’s caught in the middle of yachting’s worst disaster as reported by phone to Bob Johnstone.

"J/30 hull number 10 was shipped to Westerly Marine to serve as a model as they began production in the U.K.. She was named JUGGERNAUT and entered in the Fastnet Race skippered by Andy Cassel and crewed by Tim Levett, project manager from Westerly.

J/30 number 29 was purchased by Bill Wallace from Houston, Texas. She was commissioned in Rhode Island, sailed single handed from Bermuda across to England where she was caught entering the channel during the storm. Bill plans to enter the OSTAR singlehanded trans-Atlantic race next June.

I first heard of the storm when at sea between Cape Ann, MA and Portland, ME on J/30 SLEIGHRIDE. Mary and I were taking her Downeast for the New York Y.C. cruise. The feature news story on Wednesday morning, August 16, was that Ted Turner and other Americans had been lost at sea during a yacht race. Horrified, we listened hourly as the story unfolded. Then concern shifted to the J/30 that was in the race and friends aboard. We didn’t know, thank goodness, that Bill Wallace was there, too.

I talked with Tim by phone. Here are his comments:

"On Monday evening, we were really travelling fast, doing 10.5 knots with the wind at 19 knots apparent, using an 80% spinnaker we’d made specially for the race. There was one reef in the main. And, we were 60-70 miles from Land’s End toward Fastnet Rock."

"At 11:30 PM the wind picked up to 23 knots apparent and we were hitting 12 knots. We dropped the spinnaker and hoisted the No. 2 (140%). Within two minutes we had to go to the No. 3 (105%) with a 2nd reef in the main. Ten minutes after that we went to a 3rd reef, dropping the jib. Then we went to a stormsail and at 1:30 AM Tuesday, we dropped that. The wind was forward of the beam and we couldn’t make way to weather, but we tried to hold the bow at an angle into the waves. That was a mistake. A tremendous wave scooped us up and flipped us on our beams where we were down with mast and spreaders in the water for nearly a minute. I was really scared. But, then the boat flipped up."

"We tried to keep the seas on the aft quarter about 40’ and that seemed to work well. I have never seen such steep seas nor the speed at which they were running. We must have been right on the edge of the continental shelf and we were feared of pitch-poling at any moment. The boat performed well, however, and we experienced only one other bad knock, going over about 90’ at most."

"We survived under bare poles for 14 hours until 2 PM Tuesday. Then the wind lulled to Force 6, but we picked up a forecast of it going up to Force 9 again. We were 25 miles west of the west tip of Wales approaching a lee shore. The St. Georges Channel worried us, yet we had no detail chart of the Irish coast to navigate into a safe harbor which would have been close."

So, we headed out to sea to gain sea-room to weather another blast since it worked the first time. The wind had died to Force 4, when an Irish patrol boat came out and offered us assistance into Dunmore East. We gladly accepted."

"I am absolutely delighted with the way the boat behaved. It is beyond my expectations. I was worried about the transom hung rudder and tiller, but there wasn’t a bit of problem. The main hatch is the best hatch, I’ve ever experienced ... a real engineering marvel. It hardly leaked a drop in spite of green seas crashing on the deck. I’ve recommended that Westerly (U.K.’s largest boatbuilder) convert the hatches on all its models to this design."

We had two problems. First, the casting at the end of the Proctor boom broke, so we lost our gooseneck (U.S. models have Kenyon). And, when we went to start our Petter diesel, there was water in the fuel lines which may have come from a loose fuel intake cap. So, the engine wouldn’t work and we weren’t exactly ready to take it apart. Oh, another thing, the sliding transparent doors over the main berths won’t take much weight of contents behind them if the boat goes 90’."

We didn’t know about Bill Wallace until he called Rod after arriving back in Houston. And, then we heard more from Tim who said that he created a minor stir in England when a reporter from YACHTING WORLD encountered him at the dock among the Fastnet wreckage and asked him what he was doing there ... an obvious question since Bill’s accent and clothing set him apart from the gawkers. "Sailing" was Bill’s reply.

Upon learning that he just got in, the reporter asked how his crew had held up in the storm. Bill replied that he didn’t have a crew but was sailing alone. "In what", asked the reporter. "In that J/30 over there," said Bill. The rest of the story is outlined in a past issue of YACHTING WORLD.

I talked with Bill by phone at his home in Houston. He was reviewing the log of his voyage at the time.

"When the storm hit I was 75 miles WSW of the Bishop and when it let up about 14 hours later, I was 60 miles SW of the Lizard."

"I had six hours warning. You knew it was going to be a bad one. The barometer started plunging and the cloud line on the western horizon was awesome."

"Then when it came, it didn’t hit like a line squall. It built over the period of an hour. My log confirms the same timing as JUGGERNAUT experienced. I was doing 6 knots with 150% genoa, then went to the jib. It takes me 10 minutes to make a sail change ... very deliberate and no more than one jib on deck at a time. I use hanks. It wasn’t long before I dropped the jib and the main."

"The only thing up then was the dodger (factory option) and I was doing 3.5 knots under bare poles with the self-steerer set at 30 degrees to starboard of the wind and seas. I went below in the leeward bunk."

"There was a lot of panic out there. Those people racing haven’t encountered the ocean and what it can be like. Most of them have just been sailing around bays and harbors."

"I’ve got to tell you that the J/30 is the best goddamned sailboat in the world for it’s intended purpose. Only once did I get rolled down by a huge wave. And, I’ve got coffee stains on the cabin overhead to show that it was 120 degrees. I was making coffee on a sea-swing stove attached to the main bulkhead forward of the starboard berth. All the gear stored in the navigator’s shelf to starboard ended up perfectly organized in the flatware shelf to port. The worst of it was, I had stored canned goods behind the main berth to starboard and they all came flying right at me ... putting four gashes in my head."

The dodger was up the entire time without the side curtains. After the knockdown which lasted 30-60 seconds the only damage was a slightly bent bow in the dodger."

……Bill kept coming back to his thoughts and ideas about the boat:

"That icebox is the best icebox on any sailboat anywhere. I kept ice for 11 days. But, you’ve got to get rid of that flip up finger puller.".... We agree, Bill.

"The navigators chart table is perfect. And, I’ve spent many hours working over that table standing and sitting on the quarter berth. The boat is going to be a sensational cruising boat. Not a drop below deck during the storm ... maybe a gallon at most after 14 hours. No, I didn’t have a latch under the sliding companionway. The louvered hatch board let in an occasional bit of spray."

"Tell Harken to get rid of those ring-dings on the mainsheet and vang and use cotter pins. The ring-dings snare and pull out! .....It’s a very dry boat. I never had solid water on the deck. It keeps on top of the waves and only gets hit by foam."

"During the storm, it never got dark. Before daybreak in the middle of a gale, the stars were out then the moon came up. And, it was a brilliant morning ... absolutely magnificent sight ... wild and sparkling."

"We leave on the OSTAR June 6, and hope to see you very early in July, very early! How long will it take to go upwind in a J/30 3000 miles?" -Bob Johnstone