This week marks 40 years since the infamous 1979 Fastnet sailing race, when a fierce storm hit the fleet as they made their way from the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England to the Fastnet lighthouse off the south coast of Ireland. The storm was larger than anyone predicted, chaos ensued and 19 people died.

The British and Irish coastguards banded together for the largest ever peacetime rescue mission, including 4,000 people, naval fleets, lifeboats, commercial boats and helicopters.

The race still goes on to this day, and is a part of yachting’s famous Cowes Week.

Sailing has changed a great deal since then, but there are still lessons we should heed. Peter ‘Stokey’ Woodall, a renowned weather router with International Ocean Services and a commentator for Cowes Week, was sailing in the Bay of Biscay the day the storm hit. Here he gives his advice alongside his observations about changes since the fateful storm.

Complacency is a killer

Technology may have changed since 1979, but humans have not.

“Every disaster creates things to improve on,” Woodall said. “In 1979, there were some good years leading up to it so people got complacent. They thought they could just hop in the boat and head off. I think we are getting to that stage again with another few good years. We’ll need a tough year to see improvements.”

Woodall believes a storm would test how robust modern boats are as they are built for speed.

“If we had the same blow, you’d see a hell of a lot more yachts sink, because the boats are so light,” he said.

“Have we got to the point of how light these boats can be?” he asked.

Peter 'Stokey' Woodall, weather router for sailing and ocean rowing. Photo: International Ocean Services

Understand the abundance of weather data

The main advantage of modern yachting is the detailed weather forecasts, Woodall said, as today’s five-day forecast is more accurate than the one day predictions of yesteryear.

So ultimately, the light boats are unlikely to be subjected to the same hellish conditions because they would get enough warning not to go out, or, at their modern breakneck speeds, sail out of a storm’s way before it hit.

“There is so much data. You can have laptops on board. You are never out of mobile phone range now,” he said.

“But if there isn’t enough expertise to understand all the data that’s almost worse than not having it,” Woodall said.

Make sure your crew is compatible

“The seamanship levels have changed. There aren’t so many good seamen out there, even the skipper is a manager,” Woodall said.

The structure of top sailing teams has changed. The captain picks the best specialist for each job, when in the past they could do it all themselves. It makes for a much more efficient team in races.

“But the danger is in the compatibility of the crew and you don’t find that out until you’re in bad weather at 2am,” he said.

The responsibility lies with the race not the racers

Since the 1979 disaster, another horror struck in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race. Six people died and five boats sank. The responsibility shifted that day.

“Organisers used to say ‘we only put the race on, the skipper is still in charge’,” Woodall said. “That’s changed now. The organisers actually cancel or delay the start of the race if bad weather is coming in. That is a good lesson we learned.”

Always step up into a life raft

As the masts snapped off, and waves continued to pound the yachts in 1979, many of the crews abandoned ship for their life rafts. But, even if a yacht is on it’s last legs, so long as it’s floating, it is a safer place to be than a life raft.

The crews of 1979 found this out to their cost. The decision to leave their bedraggled, but still above water, yachts cost scores of lives. They stepped down from their decks to their doom.

‘The lesson there is you only get up into a life raft,” Woodall said, meaning you wait until you have to clamber up out of the water to warrant climbing into a life raft.

“Once one crew sent out a mayday in 1979, there was panic throughout the fleet,” Woodall said.

Ultimately, times have changed, but some lessons stay constant while others become outdated.

“In the same set of circumstances, it would be very interesting,” Woodall said. “But I really believe it wouldn’t happen again because we have so much data available.”