March 29, 2008

Fastnet '79/"We Are 138"

Stupid Question ™
Dec. 15, 2003
By John Ruch
© 2003

Q: Is this the John Ruch who was in Fastnet ’79?
—James Williamson, Sarasota, Florida

A: I wish I got more questions about myself—so flattering and so very easy to answer.

In short, I was busy being 8 years old in 1979 and am not that John Ruch.

This does leave us with a tougher question: What the heck is Fastnet ’79? A Charles Bronson movie? A British punk band?

The answer is: Something I am glad an 8-year-old was not involved with, and something that gives me a lot of respect for the other John Ruch.

Fastnet (or the “Rolex Fastnet,” as corporate sponsorship now has it) is one of the three great original yacht races, founded in 1925 and today run biannually in August in odd-numbered years. It starts at Cowes on the Isle of Wight in England, circles around Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland, then swings back to Plymouth, England—a trip of around 610 miles.

Fastnet is run through some tough coastal tides and quickly developed a reputation for foul weather, especially after a storm-ridden 1957 run.

The 1979 Fastnet was the most popular year ever for the race, with more than 300 entrants. It became the worst disaster in yachting history, as the race was thwacked by a poorly-predicted, poorly-announced killer storm system.

Racing yachts are not the massive luxury toys you might initially picture. They tend to range from 30 to 80 feet long. The average length in Fastnet ’79 was about 38 feet. The storm produced waves taller than that.

The storm was a Force 10 on he Beaufort Scale, meaning winds of 55 to 63 mph and waves 32 to 40 feet high (some reportedly peaking at 50 feet). Wind gusts reportedly reached hurricane strength—around 75 mph. These conditions lasted 20 hours.

The available British forecasts were off in both timing and severity, predicting at worst Force 8, or moderate gale-force, conditions and generally much better conditions than that. This while a storm front was developing before the sailors’ eyes that many later described as “terrific” or “awesome.”

“Force 10 is to Force 8 was stomach cancer is to gallstones,” wrote John Rousmaniere in “Fastnet, Force 10,” his 1980 account of being on the crew of the “Toscana” during the race. The other John Ruch was also on that crew. The 48-foot “Toscana” survived the storm.

A few crews heard a much more accurate French weather report, but the British reports prevailed. The surprise was especially deadly; there had been rough Fastnets before, but never without warning. The storm also appears to have generated, at least on some stretches of the course, waves of especially dangerous shape and form.

The storm originated in the US, where it also wreaked havoc on East Coast sailboats and yachts, blew the roof off a New Jersey Turnpike tollbooth, and killed a woman in New York City’s Central Park by blowing down a tree limb. Similar accidents killed several people on land in England.

Meanwhile, in the race itself, 15 sailors died, two dozen yachts were abandoned, five yachts sunk, a quarter of the yachts capsized, and most of the field quit. Rescuers saved 136 sailors. The waves were so big they even nearly capsized a Dutch destroyer that was on rescue duty.

The field included Ted Turner, the CNN mogul, who eventually won the race, and former British Prime Minister Edward Heath. Both escaped with relatively minor damage and injuries.

Others were not so lucky. The most remarkable, and grim, survivor story may be that of Nick Ward of the “Grimalkin,” which lost two of its six crew members. As Rousmaniere recounts, Ward was left for dead by three crewmates with the corpse of a fourth; survived hypothermia; and bailed water for a day despite suffering from epilepsy that had left half his body numb—except for the pain of his newly broken leg.

Fastnet ’79 raised the awareness of the real danger of sailing and led to many new safety regulations. However, even after years of new technology, early weather warnings can fail in yacht races.

Similar problems led to the major tragedy of the 1998 Sydney-Hobart race in Australia, which had six deaths and less than half the field finishing. A storm warning that went out an hour after the race began failed to save the field from a massive storm with wind gusts up to 90 mph and a maximum wave height over 80 feet.

Our bonus question from last week:
Q: What the heck are the Misfits saying they are in “We Are 138”?
—Olde School Ghoul, Chicago, Illinois

A: This classic early punk band from New Jersey, fronted by Elvis sound-alike and later heavy metal hero Glenn Danzig, lived from 1977 to 1983. (The current, reformed line-up, not including Danzig, is the result of careful negotiations and lawsuits.)

“We Are 138,” a groovy little anthem, was the first cut on their rare “Beware” EP (1980) and is now widely available on the “Collection II” CD (1995) and the “Evilive” (1987) live album. Its brief lyrics can be given in full: “We are 138 (repeated several times)/In the eyes of tiger/Do you think we’re robot clean/Does this face look almost mean/Is it time to be an android not a man/The pleasantries are gone/We’re stripped of all we were/In the eyes of tiger/We are 138 (repeated several times)/8, 8, 8 (repeated).”

“138” is pronounced, “One-thirty-eight.”

According to the Misfits fan site, Danzig (who wrote the song) has refused to explain “138” and implied it is an original invention with a secret, personal meaning. “It’s about violence,” he has said, in reference to the entire song.

Danzig’s notoriously cryptic and touchy nature aside, just about every Misfits-ologist agrees it is obviously a reference to George Lucas’ 1971 film “THX-1138.” The movie starred Robert Duvall has the title character, a man struggling to break free from an Orwellian future world patrolled by violent androids with eyeless silver mannequin faces.

Granted, Danzig refers to “138,” not “1138.” But the references to robots, androids and dehumanization are pretty clear. In addition, other Misfits members recall the band once producing promotional pins featuring an “android face” with “138” written on the forehead. And many other Misfits songs were admittedly inspired by horror and sci-fi movies.

Thus, “We Are 138” implies that we are dehumanized robots.

Lucas himself has continually used the film’s title as an inside joke. A license plate in “American Graffiti” (1973) features the title in scrambled form; in “Star Wars” (1977), Princess Leia is held in “cell block 1138.” His famed THX sound processing system and sound/video certification program are named for the film.

Lucas reportedly took the title from his phone number in his college days, though an earlier title including other letters and numbers puts that in doubt.

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