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Hundreds of competitors have been left stranded and there have been several reports of bodies floating in the sea.
Rescuers from both sides of the Irish sea are working around the clock to answer distress calls from many of the 303 yachts taking part in the ocean race.
Naval helicopters from Culdrose have made dozens of sorties and have so far rescued about 100 people.
A Dutch warship and trawlers from France have also joined the rescue operation, which is the biggest ever launched in peace-time. A 20,000 mile (32,000 km) square area of sea is being searched for 150 yachts which are still missing.
Damaged boats have been escorted into harbours from south-west tip of Ireland to the Isles of Scilly, some headed for Wales.
The Fastnet race is the last in a series of five races which make up the Admiral's Cup competition, the world championship of yacht racing.
This year's race began from Cowes on the Isle of Wight on Saturday 11 August on a sunny day in calm waters. The course takes the yachts westwards across the Irish Sea, around Fastnet Rock off the coast of the Republic of Ireland and back to Plymouth.
By yesterday lunch-time the weather conditions had deteriorated and some competitors talked of being hit by a "great fury" at sea.
Force seven winds whipped up mountainous waves and unpredictable tides caused chaos.
One of the few boats to reach the finish line in Plymouth was Morning Cloud and her skipper, former prime minister Edward Heath.
He said: "It's an experience that I do not think anybody would want to go through again willingly.
"It was a raging sea with enormous waves and one of them picked us up and laid us on our side."
Questions about safety will now inevitably be raised and the future of the Fastnet race, organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Club, could be in jeopardy.
Many of the smaller yachts taking part in the competition were not equipped with a radio and were therefore not able to report their positions.
There have also been reports that some of the life-rafts broke up and safety harnesses snapped.
The Conservative government minister responsible for safety at sea, John Nott said: "It is a tragedy as many people have lost their lives.
"But man is going to go on pitting himself against the elements and ocean racing will carry on.
"There are always lessons to be learnt from every tragedy but I would not like people to feel that as a result of this disaster that the Fastnet race will not continue."
The final number of dead was 15 - six lives were lost because safety harnesses broke, the others drowned or died of hypothermia.
Following the disaster the Royal Ocean Racing Club, which had organised the event, was heavily criticised but an official report into the disaster in December of that year cleared it of blame.
However, new special regulations were introduced which limited the number of yachts competing in the Fastnet race to 300. It became mandatory for all yachts to be equipped with a VHF radio and qualifications for competing were also brought in.
In 1983 restrictions on electronic navigational aids were also lifted. The race is still considered a supreme challenge for racing yachtsmen or women in British waters.
The winner of the 1979 race was Kiaola.
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