Ireland’s victory in this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race brought back some memories of the disastrous 1979 race in which 15 people died.
I was on duty in the Communications Centre in the Naval Base at the time and judging from the reports coming in I was very happy to be on terra firma.
At the time the Irish navy had five ships, three ex Royal Navy minesweepers and two of the first generation of Irish designed/built patrol vessels. One of these, the LE Deirdre, was heavily involved in the Fastnet disaster rescue operation.
When the LE Deirdre was commissioned in 1972 she was described as an all weather ship designed to operate far out into the Atlantic in all conditions. Indeed, she spent so much time patrolling the West coast that she was given the nick name, ‘West coast greyhound’.
Incredibly, however, the Deirdre was less safe than Titanic. Titanic was doomed from the moment she struck the iceberg because her so called ‘watertight’ bulkheads were only watertight horizontally. The tops of the bulkheads were open and once she began to go down at the bow the water spilled over the top of each ‘watertight’ compartment in turn, sealing her fate.
But the bulkhead design of Titanic, inadequate as it was, did buy vital time for at least some passengers to save themselves. The Deirdre, on the other hand, had no watertight bulkheads whatsoever and would have gone down like a stone if the hull had suffered even a moderate breach. Its design could be compared to driving a car with no brakes in the hope that they would never be needed.
I served on Deirdre in subsequent years blissfully unaware of its potentially fatal weakness. Sometime during the 1990s she was finally fitted with the necessary watertight bulkheads and in 2001 was sold off for conversion into a luxury charter yacht. I believe she now operates in the calmer and less demanding Mediterranean Sea.