In the 19th century Fastnet rock was nicknamed ‘Ireland’s teardrop’. This small, clay-slate island, 11 miles off the coast of Cork, was, for many emigrants, the last glimpse of land before America. A hundred and fifty years after the coffin ships, Fastnet is now a byword for offshore yachting – the biannual race is the jewel in the sport’s crown – but the name retains its capacity to invoke sorrow and sadness.
On 11 August 1979, 303 yachts competing in the Fastnet race left Cowes on the Isle of Wight. The 606-mile course was supposed to take them south-west through the English Channel, across the Celtic sea, around the famous rock and back to the port of Plymouth, in Devon. Four days later, after a series of incredibly violent Force 11 storms between Land’s End and Fastnet, 24 boats were sunk or abandoned, and 15 yachtsmen dead.
The 1979 race was eventually won by American media mogul Ted Turner, but it is another name – that of Englishman Nick Ward – that became synonymous with the tragedy. Ward, then 24 and an epileptic since a brain haemorrhage at the age of 15, was one of six men on board the 30ft Grimalkin. Two of the crew – owner and skipper David Sheahan and Gerald ‘Gerry’ Winks, an Irishman – never made it off the boat, while Ward was left for dead, as the rest of the crew scrambled the life raft and escaped the badly damaged clipper.
‘I didn’t speak about what happened for 25 years,’ Ward says, his soft voice quivering noticeably down the phone line as we move from talking amiably about his passion for boating and his chocolate Labrador to the events of that fateful race in 1979. ‘For so long I couldn’t talk about what happened to me on August 14, that day I spent with Gerry.’
It was a call from Sinead O’Brien, a Dublin-based documentary filmmaker, in September 2004 that finally led to Ward breaking his silence. O’Brien had intended to make a film about his story, but once the pair met in Ward’s home in Hamble, near Southampton, the project quickly morphed into a book. The writing process was drawn out – Ward would ‘write furiously in the middle of the night’, and email his efforts to O’Brien, who would make suggestions for redrafting – but the results are remarkable. Left for Dead is a gripping, thought-provoking first-person account of Ward’s experiences on board the Grimalkin, published in 2007 to near-universal critical acclaim.
‘Sinead brought a lot of things out of me that were hidden. She acted as a conduit, and without her I don’t know if I could have done it,’ says Ward, a warm, almost avuncular character whose modesty is ever-present yet never less than genuine.
What was the hardest part of writing the book? I ask. ‘Finding enough different adjectives to describe the weather that day,’ Ward laughs. ‘The waves were unbelievable. It was like standing at the bottom of the White Cliffs of Dover and looking up at the top – that’s how big the y were.’
Ward’s work as a chandler in the 1980s and 90s brought him into occasional contact with the crew mates who abandoned him on Grimalkin, after he was knocked unconscious following a massive wave. And while they never spoke of the incident, the writer insists he feels no anger and animosity towards his former friends.
‘A force 10 is a force 10. Things happen very quickly. I’d like to think that if I’d been conscious things might have been different – but I don’t know if they would have been. There are no hard feelings now. I used the anger to keep me afloat when I was on the boat, but that’s all over now.’
While writing Left for Dead was ‘a release’, Ward still felt he had unfinished business with Fastnet. His burning desire to complete the course, a passion he attributes to a childhood neighbour, led the by now-retired sailor to enlist in last year’s race, successfully taking the 30-ton clipper Aerial around the famous rock.
‘We only got 40 miles off Land’s End in 1979. I’d never made it to Fastnet before, and when we got the first sight of Cape Clear and Fastnet it sent shivers down my spine,’ he recalls.
Thirty years after almost losing his life on Grimalkin, Ward was finally able to sail into Plymouth at the end of a successful Fastnet race. ‘Closure is an over-used word, and catharsis is an over-used word, but 2009 was both for me. It was such an emotional event.’
Left for Dead has just been republished with an extra chapter about his experience on last year’s Fastnet. But Ward’s participation in that race was no marketing gimmick, rather the sailor wanted to honour those who lost their lives in 1979 in his own way.
‘Going back and doing the race again was, for me, the perfect way to commemorate those lives. There was an official church service in Cowes last year but I didn’t want to get into that depressing state. I wanted to commemorate them in my own way,’ he explains.
Not that everyone agreed with Ward’s decision to race again. His wife took several years of persuading, and there were plenty of 1979 veterans who couldn’t understand why a 54 year old would want to race again. ‘I met a couple of old friends outside the pub in Hamble before I did last year’s race. They had both raced in 1979 and they said ‘you bloody idiot. Why are doing this?’. I just said ‘don’t worry, I’ll come back’. And I did.’
Sailing runs through Ward’s veins. He lives just a quarter of a mile from the sea, and 500 yards from where he was born, and still races three times a week. While epilepsy put paid to his dreams of a full-time life on the sea, he passed on his feverish enthusiasm for all things nautical to his two children, 24 year old Sam, and Elizabeth, 18.
His eldest is a sailor on the RSS Discovery, currently off the coast of Iceland. ‘He has been through two force 10s in the past two weeks,’ his father says proudly. ‘I’m living his life vicariously. To say I’m jealous isn’t true but I would love to be with him.’
Thanks to Left for Dead, Ward’s story has inspired not just his family, but people all around the world. One of his most dedicated fans – a young woman who gave up her shore job and dedicated herself to sailing after reading his book – eventually became second mate on Aerial during last year’s Fastnet race.
Fastnet will always be with Nick Ward but, for him, the time for lamenting Ireland’s teardrop has passed. Having made peace with the past, he is happy to walk his dog, write and, of course, sail. Though that’s not to say he would never countenance another crack at the iconic rock. ‘I’d love to do Fastnet again – but whether my wife would let me? Now that’s a different story.’
Left for Dead by Nick Ward with Sinead O’Brien is available now, published by A & C Black priced £8.99
This piece first appeared in The Irish Examiner on August 8