John Rousmaniere is a titan of yachting journalism, having written hundreds of articles and several books on sailing and seamanship.
He was an onboard reporter for both the 1972 Bermuda Race and the infamous 1979 Fastnet Race, races in which both fleets experienced extreme heavy weather. Rousmaniere’s book Fastnet: Force 10 helped create change in yacht design and offshore safety equipment.
You quickly started a freelance career when you were younger and spent a lot of that in sailing. What was your initial motivation?
I was brought up in Cincinnati, OH, which is a baseball-mad town. My father was a sailor. Eventually, we moved back to Long Island when I was about 10. We always received Yachting, and I always read it, because he knew all the people. By the time I was out of the army and ready to look for a job, I covered the 1972 Bermuda Race for Sailing World, which happened to be the most violent Bermuda race ever. We had 40-50 knots regularly, 15 masts broken...
Were you sailing in the race that year?
Yeah, in a 55-footer. We had to feel our way around the reef back before GPS. We sailed in until the sea became a little more transparent and the waves short, and then tacked very quickly. If you’ve come into Bermuda, you know how frightening it is, even with GPS. It was quite exciting. Then in 1979, I sailed in the Fastnet Race. We had another storm, and I wrote the book about that.
You do a fantastic job of describing the ’79 Fastnet and telling those stories in the book. What was it like being on the boat?
It was not an academic exercise I can tell you that. It was cold, the water in the Irish sea was in the 50s and 60s, and it was blowing hard, up in the 60-knot range steadily for a good chunk of the night.
I was on a Swan 47. We were taking solid water on deck and we couldn’t get it out of the cockpit fast enough. We were up to our shins and sometimes our knees in water. We beat into that wind out to Fastnet Rock, making a lot of leeway, as you can imagine. We didn’t have any boats around us, except the few who were coming toward us.
Did you know what was going on around you?
We passed some boats that were abandoned or just lying-to. People just buttoned up the hatches and went below. Before the VHF was blown off the masthead, we heard a ship say that a liferaft with four men had just gone under their stern. That was one of the accidents I wrote about.
Four men were being picked up by this small trawler. They were coming up the rope ladder and had forgotten to unclip their safety harnesses that were connected to the raft. They were pulled back into the raft and the…it was dreadful. The raft just pulled them into the propellers. We heard some of this, then the Irish radio stations had some news. Of course, it’s all garbled. You know, whenever there’s an accident at sea, there is a lot of misunderstanding and great clouds of unknowing.
What was the mood like on the boat when you heard this on the radio?
There were only two directions to go, out there or back. We didn’t drop out of the race because the boat was making headway. We were under control. The rig was strong. We had the right sails. We were in pretty good shape. We distracted ourselves and just didn’t deal with it. On the wharf back in Plymouth, it was absolutely crowded with people, many of them women just looking out to sea. That’s when it became quite clear that it was a major catastrophe. I was reporting for the New York Times, so I had to get to a telephone.
Were you conflicted at all, emotionally?
Actually, it was a bit of a relief, to be able to channel it that way. That’s something writers can do. You kind of shift gears. It didn’t mean that I had no sympathy; I can tell you there were tears shed through the whole thing, and the aftermath of it. Not only while writing the book, but talking about it. We started doing safety-at-sea seminars immediately after, spending a lot of time on it. Fifteen people died, it was shattering.
The race, and subsequently the book, brought about attention to safety at sea, to equipment, to strategy, to seamanship and to boat design. Was that intentional?
My goal was to tell stories, make them as analytical as possible and try to get some understanding of what had happened. I went back twice. I went off to see lifeboat men. I went out to the Isles of Scilly. I went to the helicopter base in Cornwall. I talked to people who were on the race.
The hardest part was talking to two boys, both 16-year-olds. One of whom was left in a boat—the rest of the crew left him for reasons that I think are understandable. They were frightened for their lives, and he was in shock. Then there was another boy who was in one of the distressed boats. The cumulative nature of absorbing it, making sense of it and then describing it was hard. My tone was sympathetic, but slightly detached, and I think that’s the way to take it.
Non-racing sailors don’t quite appreciate this, but the rating rule guides the shape of the boat. The IOR rule, particularly for smaller boats, had gone off in an unanticipated track, which tended to make the boats unstable and very hard to steer. That had to be addressed right away.
Olin Stephens and others did tank testing work and looked at capsizing. How a keel boat capsizes and the physics behind it.
What do you fear about going offshore?
Everything. You name it. That you’ll do something dumb. That there’s not enough food or water. There’s a leak somewhere, God forbid. Just getting away from Bermuda. Very often there’s a tremendous amount of backwash, quite rough for the first six hours. Then, am I up to it? I’ve been doing this for a long time, 50 years. I still say, am I up to it now?
How do you define “seamanship”?
To me, seamanship is what we do, it’s like breathing. It’s an attitude, not just a checklist of knowing how to tie a bowline or tie in a reef. It’s avoiding complacency.
The full hour-long interview with John Rousmaniere is available online as a free audio podcast, hosted by Andy Schell. Just search ‘On the Wind,’ on iTunes & Google Play, or visit 59-north.com/onthewind