My name is Anna and a few months ago I began volunteering in the Morrab Library Photographic Archive. I was invited to choose a collection I would like to work with and selected the “Collins Collection of Shipwrecks”. I began the slow process of scanning the images and creating a digital record for each precious photograph. Amongst the first of these records was an unassuming and possibly at first glance a rather uninspiring image of a fairly modern yacht. It had a broken mast and some damage, but nothing too dramatic to a non-sailing eye. It had been salvaged and towed in to Penzance Harbour. There wasn’t any additional information in decipherable handwriting on the back of the print, as many of them have, and I moved on to the next record.
A couple of weeks later I was listening to the end of The Archers on BBC Radio 4 (my guilty pleasure) whilst baking on a Sunday morning, and an episode of ‘The Reunion’ came on. I stopped what I was doing and listened as a group of men and women discussed their own personal experiences during the Fastnet Race that took place in August 1979, the worst disaster in the history of ocean racing.
It was an incredibly moving and poignant account, which included the story of those aboard the ‘Ariadne’, the little yacht in my picture.
Four of the Ariadne’s six crew members died. Fifteen yachtsmen died in total as the tragic events unfolded on the seas between Land’s End and Fastnet.
I was 10 years old in 1979, living in land-locked Surrey; oblivious to, and ignorant of the disaster.
As I look at, and work through only a small part of the amazing collection of prints at The Morrab Library it strikes me that although there are some which feature the most dramatic and impressive tall ships of the 19th Century wrecked in full sail on menacing black Cornish rocks – the fictional stereotype of a wreck, it is the photographs which initially appear to be the least interesting which may have the most significant stories to tell.
The yacht’s mainsail was ripped in half as the wind began to get up – and after hearing a weather forecast announcing an imminent Force 9 severe gale on Monday night, the skipper decided to retire from the competition. Ariadne raced downwind before the storm towards the Irish coast and the hope of refuge. But like so many other boats, the yacht was capsized by a rogue wave. Some in the crew were injured and they decided to abandon ship and take to their life raft. The next morning a German freighter approached and prepared to rescue them. But just before it came alongside in still-huge seas, the raft capsized. The German ship made three attempts to rescue the five crewmen. One managed to grab hold of the ship’s boarding ladder as it passed the raft on the first attempt. He made it aboard. On the second pass, the yacht’s skipper lunged for the ladder and missed. He fell into the sea and was never seen again. On the third pass, one crewman got aboard the merchant ship. The man following him also made it on to the ladder, but had forgotten to detach his safety line from the raft. He was dragged back into the sea with the last remaining crewman still on the raft. Both disappeared into the wash of the ship.
An extract from the article ‘Hell and high water: The Fastnet disaster’
The Independent Saturday 18th July 2009
The Reunion episode ‘The Fastnet Race Disaster’ – available to listen to now BBC Radio 4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05q5ynq