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1979: 'Beyond fear'
Matthew Sheahan was only 17 when he entered the 1979 Fastnet race on his father's yacht, Grimalkin.

The 608-mile (978 km) course started in near perfect conditions, but for the crew of Grimalkin it ended in tragedy as they battled to survive one of the worst storms to hit an ocean yacht race.

The first line of defence when conditions start to get tough is to reduce sail. We all did that, everybody in the fleet did that.

There's nothing unusual in reefing down, or even reefing down until you've only got one tiny scrap of sail up. But what is unusual is to get to the point where you need to remove all the sails and sail under what we call "bare poles".


As an indication of just how strong the conditions were, we were still sailing along at speeds we would have trouble getting to under full sail in decent conditions.

As it got worse through the night we started to be knocked down. During the early hours of the morning we were capsized again and again.

When a yacht capsizes it's pretty dramatic. Each time we were thrown out of the boat. Sometimes it would just be rolled over onto its side and catapult the crew into the water. Other times it would roll completely over and come up the other way.

Worse still was when it was "pitch-poled", when the boat actually does a cartwheel. The bow ploughs into the wave in front and the back gets lifted up by another wave.

Thunderous roar

And quite often the next thing would be popping out on the surface and being towed along by your safety harness behind the boat that was careering down the face of the wave. And bear in mind these waves were the size of buildings.

This happened time and again throughout the night - it was utterly exhausting.

After first light we had one that was particularly bad. I was down below with my father trying to sort out some of the mess and decide on what we were going to be doing next.

I heard this thunderous roar, a bit like I imagine an avalanche would sound. I glanced up through the window and saw this absolutely monstrous wave that was breaking and rolling down like a huge bit of Hawaiian surf.

Pinned down

Within seconds it had hit and we rolled over. The boat eventually came up the right way but my father had been concussed by some of the debris that was down below and wasn't in a good state.

We got back on deck to check that everyone was OK and we got hit by another wave which rolled the boat over again. Except this time the boat didn't come up.

Fortunately for me, I'd been thrown clear of the boat, but only just - I was still attached on my harness.

I was being pinned down by the deck, because my harness line wasn't quite long enough to get my head totally above water.

I could see a body face down in the water... There was absolutely no question in my mind it was my father

As I tried to get my life jacket and harness undone to allow my head above the water - which must have been maybe a couple of minutes later - the boat started to right itself.

It then flicked around very quickly and because I hadn't undone my harness fully it launched me back into the cockpit.

The boat had been dismasted, there were some crew lying in the cockpit, others hanging on outside the boat.

All of them had been trapped under the boat. One of crew had realised my father was in a very bad way and needed to get out from under the boat, and he had cut my father's safety harness to free him.

As I stood up and looked upwind I could see a body face down in the water. We were drifting away from it. There was absolutely no question in my mind it was my father.

The worst thing was that he was upwind of the boat and the boat was drifting downwind. Had it been the other way round we could have got the life raft or something to go downwind and help pick him up. But upwind in those conditions: impossible.

Life raft terror

After the final knock-down three of us decided it was right to get in the life raft. We couldn't move the other two, both of whom were unconscious and buried under broken spars and rigging and ropes.

We decided it was better to get help and getting help meant getting into the life raft.

But the life raft was the most terrifying part of the whole thing. It's like being in a toddler's paddling pool and being thrown into serious, serious weather.

This inflatable raft was spun down the face of the waves and every now and then we thought it was going to flip over as a breaking wave either crashed over the top or forced up from underneath.

Sometimes events are so big and get so out of control as to make you feel miniscule

It was absolutely terrifying.

We spent several hours in there until a helicopter plucked us out of the water. We then informed the rescue services immediately there were other people on the boat.

There's not many days that go by that I don't think at least of my father and very often about the race.

Sometimes events are so big and get so out of control as to make you feel miniscule. Something deep within you realises that there's absolutely nothing you can do about it.

You almost go beyond a state of fear. The whole thing was completely and utterly overwhelming.

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David and Matthew Sheahan on Grimalkin
Matthew Sheahan had been racing with his father, David, from an early age

Thirty-foot Grimalkin was one of the smaller boats to enter the race

Matthew Sheahan
Matthew found the experience "overwhelming" but continues to race
In Context
Rescuers located Grimalkin, but one of the two crew left on the boat had already died from his injuries. The other was airlifted to safety.

David Sheahan's body was never recovered.

Despite his ordeal, Matthew Sheahan continued to sail. He found Grimalkin in a car park in southern Ireland, had it rebuilt and raced it for many years.

He is now racing and technical editor of Yachting World.

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