Brett Dingwall shares how the selflessness of others made all the difference after the harrowing events of the 1979 Fastnet Race

Anyone in the sailing fraternity recognises the Fastnet Race as one of the world’s most notoriously tough endeavours, even for the most skilled sailor.

The 695-mile route starting from the English south coast, around the Fastnet rock, a rather bleak isolated protruding teardrop situated in the Celtic Sea, and back again has been well documented.

A spot onboard this sought-after race is on many bucket lists and attracts people from around the globe.

But there’s one race edition in particular that stands out, one that has warranted book publications, and even resulted in changes to safety measures for vessels that stand today.

The year unforgettably etched into the memory of both those involved and succeeding competitors is the infamous 1979 Fastnet Race.

A helicopter hovering over a damage yacht from the 1979 Fastnet Race

The rescue of the 1979 Fastnet crews was one of the biggest operations during peacetime in the UK. Credit: Getty

Meteorologists and journalists reported on the natural phenomenon that formed over the Atlantic Ocean and swept across the racecourse, leaving behind harrowing destruction and chaos.

Vessels, like scattered debris in the vast expanse of the open water, were left battered and bruised, and limped onwards in search of shelter.

In time, the victims of this perilous storm shared their stories and people everywhere were rocked by the tragic loss of life.

The glimmer of light, piercing through the thick blanket of cloud as the storm subsided, was a reminder to us all that when such a catastrophe occurs, acts of kindness will always prevail.

In our minds the 1979 Fastnet paints a scene of despair, loss, sadness and fear – all of which are credible descriptions of one of the biggest disasters in ocean racing history.

But I am going to fill in some gaps, touching on the small acts of kindness and the bits that are so easily missed that do, in fact, restore faith in humanity.

We have been using various forms of boat to travel for longer than we’ve had a written language.

A man looking at a magazine reporting on the 1979 Fastnet Race

Around 4,000 people, including personnel with the Irish Naval Services, lifeboat volunteers and crew from commercial boats assisted in the rescue operation. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

The idea of pushing off from the safety of the shore to the uncertainty that lay ahead would seem mad to most, but not the sailor.

The sailor is drawn to uncertainty and develops a feeling of freedom because of this.

The formidable characteristics of watermen and women alike was the driving force in the 1979 Fastnet rescue mission, a huge undertaking for all involved.

There’s a saying ‘a sailor if nothing else is resourceful.’ However, the best ones are optimistic too.

We look back on one man’s memories and personal experiences of this race.

He reminds us that even the smallest acts of kindness can have profound effects on those around us.

Then, as now, the hints of Gelcoat and epoxy that covered his clothes, untidy exterior and rough hewn but steady working hands left no doubt as to the occupation of this man; he was of course a boat builder.

Brett Dingwall constructs Hornets, Toys and Merlin Rockets in his Mill Hill workshop in North London, which he admits is not a typical location for a boat builder to set up shop.

But his work was skilled, his character enchanting and, combined with his renowned reputation, he made it work.

Accidental 1979 Fastnet crew

In his typical laid-back approach to life, Brett accidentally found himself hitching a ride with his client, who happened to also be his accountant, on board the 33ft Contention, Lipstick.

Brett’s true passion was dinghy racing; he revelled in the fast-paced aggression that surfaced on the racecourse and the tactical decision making that exercised his mind.

The fact was he felt indifferent pursuing what he considered to be a long slog offshore.

‘It was another life experience, so I thought why not? It would be a shame to turn it down but yacht racing wasn’t my thing.’

Two men on a capsizing dinghy

Brett Dingwall prefers dinghy racing to offshore racing, liking the tactical decisions he has to make while sailing the course. Credit: Brett Dingwall

Crew nowadays train for hours on the water to build a strong team, but Brett had never stepped foot on the boat before, let alone met all the crew.

Their setup was no slick operation either; these men were hashed together and, like so many others, were unaware of the fury that was set to come.

‘We weren’t geared up like most boats are today,’ says Brett. ‘We had a radio and charts but it was pretty basic. I don’t think such a catastrophe would happen today with all the technology we have at our disposal.’

Having crossed the start line, ‘The weather wasn’t all that bad and we were going like the clappers,’ explains Brett.

But as they edged out of the English Channel the heavens blackened above them and merciless weather quickly developed.

The crew abandoned any competitive thoughts and engaged survival mode for the vessel.

Brett’s attitude towards the situation remained positive though.

A man in a checked shirt plaining a piece of wood

Despite the terrifying conditions he encountered that day, Brett recalls feeling in awe at the spectacular power of nature. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

‘I soon realised the severity of the storm and I couldn’t believe the height of the waves. I remember thinking, “Wow! Isn’t nature spectacular!” I wish I had had a camera to take a photograph.’

As the yacht became uncontrollable, the crew dropped the sails and lashed them to the deck.

A confused sea state added to Brett’s labour on the helm and far too often, waves swept over the deck, engulfing the whole yacht.

As fear transmitted through the crew, a consensus to enter the liferaft emerged.

‘I didn’t want to get into the liferaft, not while the boat was still afloat; it didn’t make any sense. I’m almost certain we lost it at some point.’

Instead, measures were taken to limit damage.

A yacht sailing past the Fastnet lighthouse off Ireland

An inquiry was held following the 1979 Fastnet, which tightened up racing rules including the introduction of Safety & Stability Screening for boats. Credit: Kurt Arrigo

Lines, buckets and almost anything acting as a drogue were thrown off the stern in an attempt to slow and steady the vessel.

‘It was quite impressive. The speed instrument often went off the scale down the waves and there was a point when I knew for certain that the boat would capsize.’

Brett secured himself to the cockpit with his harness and wound a rope around his hand a few times: ‘I didn’t want to rely solely on my harness line, so I tried to take some of the load off when I hit the water.’

His bare-knuckled grip around the tiller guided Lipstick through the mountainous waves that seemed to have no rhythm or mercy.

The ricochet of the trembling bones was felt throughout the yacht and with each blow, a deafening suspense and finally relief as she held together.

But the inevitable was coming.

Destructive waves

‘I was helming for the first capsize and we fully inverted. As we went over, it was as though the boat continued making way through the water, it didn’t seem to stop! It’s quite amazing what the boat managed to withstand.’

Insignificant in size, Lipstick remarkably righted herself against the power of the sea.

The main hatch had been damaged during the capsize, leaving a large hole in the companionway.

With no drill to be found, Brett began to create holes with a screwdriver and hammer, to secure the hatch in place with a few rogue screws to avoid it being torn off entirely.

In true English manner, one of the crew piped up, ‘Don’t you think you’d better ask the owner first before making holes in his boat?! He might not be very happy about that.’

Aware of the gallons of water flooding over the deck and risk of yet another capsize, Brett won’t recall his exact response, but we can guess the language is not suitable for publication.

The Contessa 32 Assent, the smallest boat to finish the 1979 Fastnet Race

The Contessa 32 Assent was one of the survivors of the 1979 Fastnet, and took part in the race again in 2019 following restoration. Credit: Nic Compton

Maydays seemed to run continuously over the radio and flares lit the sullen sky. ‘We could see and hear other boats in distress, but we were too small to help anyone around us as we had almost no steerage by this point.’

Lipstick suffered multiple knockdowns and the interior and its contents were quite literally turned upside down.

‘It was really strange being stood on the ceiling of the boat and it seemed to take forever to come upright. But the whole experience was exhilarating.’

It’s got to be in the blood, as Brett’s cousin Ross happened to be competing in the race as a navigator onboard Rrose Selavy, a Contessa 43.

Previously named Moonshine, she was a British Admiral’s Cup boat but was sailing under the Italian flag.

He describes similar conditions, but the yacht sustained barely any damage and there was no walking on the ceiling.

However, mutiny broke out as half the Italian crew wouldn’t step foot on deck, leaving but a few bodies to battle against the elements.

A man in a checked shirtly

Brett Dingwall is a boat builder, specialising in Hornets, Toys and Merlin Rockets. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

However, Ross and the crew made it around the rock, which was no small achievement.

The change in depth when rounding the rock created monstrous waves and the crew only escaped a knockdown by the skin of their teeth.

The weather soon subsided and when checking for water in the bilge, Ross found an undamaged crate of white wine.

‘A real miracle. It felt like a water to wine moment!’ he said. How could they ignore such a sign? ‘I pushed the cork in and we drank the first bottle. By the time we got to Plymouth, we were completely pissed. When we got off the boat people were looking at us thinking, oh the poor devils, they’ve faced such terrible conditions they can’t even walk straight!’

Although Brett and Ross shared similarities in conditions, their experiences onboard were rather different.

Interestingly, their outlook as a whole remains uncannily similar.

As Ross said: ‘In a horrid sort of way, it was quite exciting.’

When the worst of the weather had passed for Brett, the slight ease in conditions gave him some time to breathe, but as the adrenaline began to wear off, the effects of the passing hours set in.

Darkness overthrew the daylight hours and because of the extreme weather and poor visibility, the logbook lay bare.

Maintaining a fix was near impossible and the limited technology and lack of navigation systems meant that Brett and the crew now had no idea where they were.

Selfless acts of others

Typically, fishing boats get a bit of a bad name; their casual approach to the rules of the road often go amiss amongst the yachtie folk, but the French trawler, Cap der Guy was a rare welcoming sight.

The rough waters meant a risky transition on board, but every effort was made to get off the boat.

The French fishermen offered nutritional essentials, Gauloises cigarettes and real coffee.

‘In those days everyone smoked like crazy, but I can’t remember being able to light up a cigarette until then!’

Paint splattered hands of a man wearing a checked shirt

Brett Dingwall recalls the pain he felt in his hands from gripping rope which was his lifeline beneath the capsized yacht. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

Somewhat refuelled and now bound for Ireland, Brett slept propped up amongst pots and nets as the French transported the crew and vessel to solid ground.

Lipstick was taken into Dunmore East Harbour in southern Ireland, where some boats had already made it back.

Hundreds selflessly risked their own lives to help those in need; these heroic rescue efforts by many crew on ships, trawlers, lifeboats and aircraft proved invaluable.

Looking back on such an event requires reflection as well as remembrance.

Quite often this is where the stories end but the truth is, the rescue continued. The days of incessant turbulence under Brett’s feet left him unsteady.

He tacked his way up the pontoon, bouncing off piles as he went but unfortunately for Brett this wasn’t due to wine, for he was not blessed like his cousin.

Continues below…

His hands were left sore and bruised.

Mere strands of polyester fibres wound together to form a ‘bit of rope’ had become a significant lifeline in his survival while beneath the capsized yacht.

Longing to speak to his family, Brett continued the uphill struggle in search of a phone.

The sailing club had opened the clubhouse especially to accommodate the crews and a bucket of change could be found next to the payphone, while hot meals were consumed in the comfort of the club at no expense.

‘I phoned my wife – we had twin boys that were two at the time. My wife was worried as it had been relayed that only five were brought back on board the trawler and we were a crew of six, but luckily this was lost in translation. We all made it back safe.’

A warm Irish welcome

Lipstick was in disarray, but they were back safe and any work to be done could wait a while.

Local families took the weather-beaten sailors into their homes, no questions asked, and no timescale given; the Irish welcomed them as if they were their own.

Blessed with charm and charisma, their soft accents and friendly hospitality is renowned all over the world.

Those lucky enough to have landed here can certainly vouch for that.

Blurry with exhaustion, Brett accepted the gracious offer to retreat to a local family’s home; not that they’d have taken no for an answer, where he slept and slept and slept some more.

The residents of Dunmore East opened their homes to the Fastnet survivors. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The residents of Dunmore East opened their homes to the 1979 Fastnet survivors. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

‘While on the boat I was of use, I had something to contribute but I remember thinking I must pace myself to be able to keep going. I was drained but there was one chap on board who kept morale high, and I think his role was most important. Once I’d made it ashore, I relaxed somewhat and allowed myself to be looked after.’

Unsure of the number of hours that had passed, Brett finally woke to find the family had rooted through the chaos on board Lipstick, gathered his belongings and set them out on the side.

His sodden, salty clothes had been washed and hung out to dry, they had taken care of everything.

The heavenly smell of brewed coffee and bacon wafted throughout the house, the smell alone woke Brett from his deep slumber, and he eagerly made his way downstairs to find a hearty Irish breakfast on the kitchen table.

‘For me, it wasn’t frightening at the time, I didn’t have a chance to think too much. I knew I had to keep going and keep the boat together, but I was quite numbed afterwards. I could not focus on the people that took me in for I was so exhausted. It was days before I even knew anyone had lost their lives in the race and I thought to myself how lucky I was.’

The hospitality Brett was met with in Dunmore East was warm and genuine.

These memories of support from strangers are still present today and largely override any dire flashbacks.

You won’t find Brett sat in the pub relaying tales of woe; instead he highlights his gratitude to the Irish, who opened their homes and hearts during one of sailing’s bleakest moments.

Brett says: ‘The experience was exhilarating, it roused all the senses, and this was quite positive for me as it helped put things in perspective. It was clearer than ever before what I valued in my life.’

Relieved to have reached Dunmore East, Brett couldn’t get home quick enough.

Brett Dingwall prefers to recall the warmth and kindness he received from strangers rather than talk about the harrowing events of the 1979 Fastnet Race. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

Brett Dingwall prefers to recall the warmth and kindness he received from strangers rather than talk about the harrowing events of the 1979 Fastnet Race. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

He was running his own business, had a young family to support and days off were few and far between, but arriving home, he knew that time with his family was most important.

‘I took my wife and the boys to Whipsnade Zoo the day I arrived. Even though the boys were so young, they had already spent plenty of time on the water but we decided a day on solid ground was best!’

The most challenging times are often when people learn the most about themselves.

The trickiest parts of life give a balanced perspective and shine a light on the positives which can otherwise remain unnoticed.

Take from this story, the mindset of an optimistic sailor whose attitude has bettered him in everyday life and future challenges.

‘I was in hospital for quite a long time and I automatically reverted back into the same mindset as when I was sailing. I reduced my aspirations, took everything as it came and felt grateful for what I had and for the small things that improved my day.’

The 1979 Fastnet Race

The 1979 Fastnet was one of the world’s worst sailing disasters and triggered the largest ever rescue operation in peacetime.

A worse-than-expected storm on the third day brought Force 10 winds which ravaged the 303-strong fleet, leaving 24 boats abandoned, five boats sunk, 136 sailors rescued and 15 dead.

The rescue operation involved around 4,000 people, including personnel with the Irish Naval Services, helicopter crews, lifeboat volunteers and crew from commercial boats.

The subsequent inquiry resulted in improved safety equipment and highlighted several weaknesses in yacht construction such as cockpit drainage, the arrangement
of stowage, and changes in the construction and design of the main companionways in order to improve watertight integrity.

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