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10 December

Two OVs, two generations apart, tell of the Fastnet Race, one of the toughest offshore sailing races

We were delighted that Hon OVs Cara and John Roslington have shared the following incredibly interesting information about two OVs involved with this well-known yacht race:

Two OVs, two generations apart, tell of the Fastnet Race, one of the toughest offshore sailing races by Caroline Roslington (Hon OV, 1977-2011)

My first reaction when James (Roslington, Cr 85-95) told us that he had entered for the Fastnet Race last year was one of maternal horror. I remembered only too vividly the tragedy of the 1979 race when there were 19 fatalities, 75 yachts capsized and 5 lost entirely.  Only 84 out of 303 yachts finished the 605-mile race from Cowes in the Isle of Wight, round the Fastnet Rock off the southwest coast of Ireland and then back to Plymouth. It resulted in the biggest peace-time rescue operation ever. We were in Guernsey at the time and heard that Peter Dorey, a very well-known Guernseyman was lost. He went overboard and his safety harness failed.

My second thought was that it had been a wake-up call to the yachting fraternity and a great deal had been learned about safety measures, boat design and radio communications. So we followed his progress via a tracking app with parental intensity and waited with bated breath to hear from him. He rang us on arrival in Plymouth. “I think I’ll take up golf!” he said.

I first met David Mocatta (Ca 43-45) 25 years ago when he got in touch to ask if I had a photograph of him in the School Archive; all his had been lost in the war. I found a picture of him on Castle House photograph. Once we started talking boats, he told me something of his sailing experiences, including his two Fastnet races. He sailed very beautiful, well-known yachts in the 50s & 60s, becoming a very experienced & skilled skipper. Recently, I asked him to write it all down and with the help of Charmian, his wife and an experienced dinghy sailor in her own right, he has.

How many more OVs are there out there who have undertaken the rigours of the Fastnet Race or indeed have other sailing stories to tell? Let us hear them.

 

David Mocatta (Ca 43-45)

David Mocatta walked into The King’s School, Worcester, on his own in May 1943 aged fourteen. It was an unusual month in the academic year to be joining and he’s never been able to explain the reason — because it was wartime routines were not normal. His prep school on the South Coast had been evacuated to Twyning in Gloucestershire  and he was not to go home for two years. His parents had not made a preliminary visit to the school and neither of them ever went there; his father was away on war service and his mother was caring for her own mother and his younger brother.

David’s mother put him on a train at Paddington and he alighted at Worcester Shrub Hill; few people were about so he made his way towards the Cathedral because he knew the school was ‘in that direction’. At the Edgar Tower a charming older boy asked if he could help and told him what to do; David remembered that he had a slight French accent. He later learned his surname, Guimbeau, who soon left the school, joined the Free French Army, and was killed in France. His name is on the Memorial Board in the College Hall.

The House Master, Mr Bentley, was ex-army and fierce; during house prayers each evening and despite much rationing the boys were aware of the smell of whisky. Researching him during his own retirement, David discovered that during the Great War this man had twice been awarded the Military Cross.

After School Certificate, at the end of the September term in what would have been his A level year, David reached ‘call up’ age and he had to leave school. He was conscripted into the Army in January 1946*. Preliminary training was at the army barracks at Colchester: he moved on to Middleton Stoney, Oxfordshire, to Portsmouth, and to Aldershot where a training course as a lecturer would be useful in later life. A duty he found strange and distasteful at one camp was to be in charge of German prisoners of war; the War had ended so they were hardly a threat. He noticed that some were younger than he and most were surly and looked, understandably, resentful. At his final posting to Shrewsbury, he met Derek Evans who, although they subsequently lost touch, was to be of tremendous influence in the future.  Derek was a professional photographer and after WWII became well-known internationally. One evening he invited David to join him in the dark room of a local photographic club; here, the thrill of watching an image appear on blank paper was never to leave David. He was inspired; at the end of his National Service in the spring he left the Army with the idea that he would like to become a professional photographer.

David’s family had moved to the South Coast where he enjoyed the summer in the family 16ft sailing dinghy with his two brothers, but his father soon purchased a slightly larger vessel; it had two small bunks, a primus stove and a bucket. He purchased from an ex-War Department store the compass from a Spitfire and sailed with a friend to Cherbourg where he was shouted a warning by a fisherman because the harbour was still cluttered with submerged wartime shipwrecks. His little craft was named Iolanthe and had been owned by Francis B Cooke who published many guide books for amateur sailors. This passionate yachtsman had been refused service in WWI because of a weak heart but was still writing articles for the Yachting Monthly magazine when over 100 years old.

A profession in photography had to remain a dream and, through his elder brother, David joined a firm of insurance brokers at Lloyd’s of London. Like many of his age, he joined clubs where he could enjoy motor cycling and motor racing — interests he shared with his father. However, his knowledge of sailing drew him to the 60ft Camper & Nicholson yawl, Lutine, built in 1952 and owned by Lloyd’s. His previous sailing interest meant he was soon to become one of the experienced skippers — a huge responsibility with a crew of twelve – and he took part in two Fastnet Races, many RORC races and Tall Ships races. Ashore, after a race to La Rochelle, in the yacht club he met the father and younger brother of the sixth-former who had greeted him at the Edgar Tower.

 

The first Fastnet Race in which David took part was the 1957 which became notorious for the bad weather experienced by all the competitors. The skipper was ‘Sandy’ Howarth, a highly-respected yachtsman whose calmness in any situation was to influence many younger members as they spent more time learning to sail in the 50s and 60s. The Yachting Monthly magazine had reported the race and showed a photograph of the crew but David was not in it; he was telephoning home to tell his parents that he was safe. Expecting a hero’s greeting after several days in dreadful weather, he has often recounted how he learned that one of the Boston Terriers bred by his mother had fatally mauled another and when, somewhat exhausted,  he arrived home he found the household in deep mourning and preoccupied with that event only.

He took part in the following Fastnet Race in 1959 which was less exhausting and more pleasurable. That year the skipper was Brian Stewart, the owner of Zulu, and also well-known and respected in the sailing world. The two yachts, Lutine and Zulu would often be seen together in the Solent. Over the years, David often wrote reports of races for the Lloyd’s ‘in house’ magazine and contributed photographs of the events. Racing crews were made up of members of the Lloyd’s community but at the end of the racing season and before the boat was laid up for the winter several weekend informal ‘jollies’ were  organised when other people not connected with Lloyd’s were permitted to join club members as crew. These were always popular and during the two days, depending on weather and tides, Lutine would sail along the south coast or across to Cherbourg; David maintains that it was an excellent way to get to know people quickly. A growing family meant his sailing days with Lutine became fewer, but for several years he would skipper the ‘Over 40s weekend’. After the launch of a new Lutine in 1970, this eventually became the ‘Over 50s weekend’!

 

David spent his professional life in the insurance world, travelling mostly to the US. At home, he used his camera whenever possible. He always developed and printed his photographs and his wife, previously a dinghy sailor, despite disliking the smell of the chemicals, would faithfully slop these in the developing dishes whilst keeping an ear for the children upstairs in bed. She considered their son and daughter the most-photographed children in the world — until the grandchildren came along.

In retirement, his photographic skills extended to video filming. Not of family holidays — although there were several of those on the French canals – but, as a result of his wife’s interests, of special crafts which were not catered for commercially: calligraphy & lettering, glass engraving and mosaic which they filmed and edited together. These educational videos (now converted to DVD) were made with friends who were professionals in their disciplines, not for profit, and were available to a small market. These DVDs remain a unique record of the beautiful work of some artists who are no longer with us.

David and his wife moved from Surrey to Herefordshire in 1996 and his love of this area is now shared by her. By good fortune, they were able to meet Derek Evans once more before he succumbed to a stroke. Although David’s main interest is in photographing people (never officially for weddings!) his skill has been of particular use in providing photographic records of the architecture of local churches and the monuments within, which have contributed to church archive collections. Local events — ploughing matches, large model aircraft displays — all have provided opportunities for interesting, exciting and often amusing shots. He takes quiet pleasure in knowing that his love of photography has enabled him unexpectedly to contribute to official records, to produce educational craft DVDs and to provide many memories for other people.

National Service*

Conscription became general with the National Service Act 1948. When a man reached the age of 18 he had to spend two years in one of the Services; this ended in 1960.

The original Lutine, a frigate, foundered off the Dutch coast in 1799 with a cargo of bullion. The ship’s bell was retrieved and was used in the Underwriting Room and rung as a trading signal. Today it is often rung on ceremonial occasions.

 

What they don’t tell you about offshore racing – Fastnet 2019 by James Roslington (Cr 1985-95)

For many amateur sailors, more used to island-hopping in the Aegean, offshore racing seems like an alien world. Seen from afar, racing crews sprinting past in their expensive, matching kit and their high-tech yachts might as well be in a different universe. It’s not unusual for a cruising sailor never to have gone racing; or for a racing sailor never to have joined a cruise.

Nevertheless, I thought it might be fun to try it out. Having seen (and dodged to avoid) many smart, superbly quick racing yachts in the Solent, curiosity got the better of me. I decided to join a crew for the Fastnet Race 2019. Like other cruising sailors, I was aware of this iconic race, initiated by the Royal Ocean Racing Club in 1925 and renowned as one of the classic offshore races in the world. As a newcomer to racing, I applied for a berth with Sailing Logic, a well-known school focused on racing and based in the Hamble.

We were a crew of ten, including a professional skipper and mate, aboard Arthur Logic, a Beneteau First 40. Our skipper Jim was a veteran of 300,000 miles at sea – roughly equivalent to ten times round the world — while our mate Georgie had competed in France’s notoriously demanding Figaro series, and regaled us with hair-raising tales including a near-sinking off the coast of Ireland. The rest of the crew had a decent amount of experience, including two veterans of the Clipper Round the World Race, a racer from the Junior Offshore Group, and others with extensive time spent in dinghies and cruising. Still, this was the first Fastnet for everyone except Jim. Together, we trained over several weekends and took part in four qualifying races to be ready for the Fastnet.  Jim and Georgie put us repeatedly through sail changes, tacks, and man-overboard exercises, while our organisation ashore was faultlessly run by the admirable Prue. If not as well trained as some other crews, we nevertheless thought we would be good enough to put in a respectable showing.

At the start of the race off Cowes, we found ourselves among a mix of throughbred racing yachts and famous survivors. We were joined by the deceptively graceful Gypsy Moth IV, Sir Francis Chichester’s round-the-world yacht. Also there was Assent, a 32-foot Contessa which had competed in the 1979 Fastnet Race, and was one of smallest entries, handled by the legendary Rogers family. Meanwhile the professional crews included some of the best sailors in the world; as a sport, yacht racing is unusual because amateurs compete alongside world-class athletes. It felt as if we’d been allowed to warm up on Centre Court immediately before the Wimbledon Final.

The race start was spectacular, with dozens of boats jockeying for position. We had a tremendous start, being among the first boats in our class to cross the line, skilfully steered by Jim. Minutes later, a strange whirring noise filled the air, to restore our perspective. It grew to the roar of an express train, as a giant French trimaran sped past at twice our speed, overtaking us from the class that started behind ours, its helmeted sailors suspended above the winged hull like acrobats.

The route of the race took us through the Needles channel along the south coast of England. Once past Land’s End and the Scillies, we would head into the Irish Sea. The aim of the race was to round the Fastnet Rock off the south-west corner of Ireland, and then head back to the finish in Plymouth.

As we headed towards Land’s End in good conditions, the race became a parade of yachts, keening against the grey horizon, each edging for advantage. We settled into our watches, taking turns to helm the yacht, change sails, cooking, sleeping, or chatting on the rail as we tucked into our boil-in-the-bag meals.

The trouble started in the Irish Sea. Out of the comparative safety of the Channel, we were exposed to the weather rolling in from the Atlantic. The winds were not particularly strong — Force 6 at most — but the sea was short, choppy, and uneven. Several of crew began looking a bit green. Being out in the open air was better, but down below, nausea struck within moments. As I lay on a bunk below feeling seedy, one of the other crew members, shouting “I’ve got to get down”, plunged past me to lie fully-clothed, gripping the bunk till the sickness passed. Only three of the crew were unaffected; we later heard that another boat had to turn back as its crew had ceased to function due to incapacitating sea sickness. Heading into the night, conditions became violent, as we were thrown and battered in Arthur’s fibreglass shell. One of our crew members, uncomplaining and stoical, was clearly in pain — we later found out he had four broken ribs. Another yacht, its foresail already shredded, had to head home as a crew member with a broken arm was slipping in and out of consciousness.

The race became tougher as we neared the Fastnet Rock at night. The bravado chat of getting a selfie poised heroically against the outline of the Rock’s lighthouse had long faded as we steered in darkness toward the solitary light. The approach was hard steering, having to grip the wheel as the boat heeled over on the edge, with half of the watch too sick to steer. Exhausted, with the Rock only a few miles away, we went below as the next watch came on.

The weather eased off during the run back to Land’s End. Entrenched in the routine, we alternated between stints below in bunks and emerging to cling on handholds in the juddering, relentless motion of the boat. Everything was soaked. Most of us had given up on washing or changing clothes; things started to smell pretty bad below decks. Too exhausted or ill to go below, we drew lots to make the next meal. I forced myself to make lunch, accidentally mixing in soapy Fairy liquid with the pasta; someone said it was the best meal they’d ever had.

We arrived at Plymouth in sunshine mid-afternoon. Arriving at the dock, Jim told us to prepare the lines to moor on the port side. By this stage, I was so tired I could no longer distinguish port from starboard, and unthinkingly moved to the wrong side of the boat. Stepping on to the pontoon, unsteady on our feet after five days at sea, we drank champagne and the sailor’s Caribbean cocktail, Dark ‘n’ Stormy. For once, it felt like we’d earned it. Jim said afterwards that it had been a “brutal” race. Yet there was something magic in those moments — speeding off at the start, the procession of sails at Land’s End, even the white-knuckle ride at the Rock, and the plastic mugs of champagne on the pontoon. Finally, it was obvious why the racers do it.

James Roslington (Cr 1985-95) began sailing at age of two and has sailed extensively in the Channel, the Atlantic coast of Europe and the Mediterranean. Since racing in the Fastnet, he has competed in the 2020 Caribbean 600 and plans to join the 2021 Fastnet Race.