11th of August 1979, the cream of the yachting world is at the appointed time and at the appointed place. It’s Cowes and it’s the start of the 1979 Fastnet race. None of them could expect that, within 48 hrs, a freak, un-forecast storm of unimaginable ferocity would result in the largest sea and air rescue operation that had ever taken place.
By the time the race ended 15 competitors had died, 24 crews had abandoned ship, 5 yachts had sunk and 136 sailors had been rescued.
Of the 303 yachts that left Cowes for that fateful race only 85 completed the 608 miles of this historic event.

Nick Ward was a 23 year old crew member on “Grimalkin” one of the 58 starters sailing in the class V fleet for boats of 28-32ft (8.4-9.6m). By the time his race was run he’d seen the seas of nightmares, “Grimalkin” was dismasted and sinking, the skipper was lost and Nick and one other crewman, Gerry Winks, were injured, unconscious and left for dead as the remaining crew took to the life raft.

Nick’s narrative reels the reader in, just like the storm caught the racers. The calms show a fairly idyllic Hamble riverside upbringing, in a loving family marred only by one period of severe illness that resulted in Nick becoming epileptic.

The excitement of the race start and the passage down Channel in fluky conditions are familiar to most offshore sailors. The hook slips in to the reader as the conditions worsen. From being a pleasant enough sailing story suddenly we’ve got a rip roaring thriller on our hands.   

Following this crew’s journey from an experienced, confident race crew, highly motivated and focused, into survivors is starkly harrowing.

Nick's own descent is into a state of constructive madness, as his situation deteriorates. A state where he is bolstered up by long mundane conversations with the by now deceased Gerry Winks, reciting song lyrics and phone numbers and bailing compulsively as “Grimalkin” is continuously brutalised by savage wind and waves as big as houses.

I finished this book just as the BBC showed a documentary about the winners of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award for bravery. A memorable quotation from an Australian holder of the VC was. Winners of the VC have been tested. We have stood up to the test. Well Nick Ward was tested. Being the last man rescued from the 79 Fastnet was as stern a test as any I can think of. While even to this day he still feels the hurt of the abandonment he knows that he stood up to the test.

BYM Home,Top of page, Previous page, America's Cup Supplement.