Airlifts and Perth: The Legacy of the Fastnet Race

The vaunted Sea King helicopter has been a staple for rescue services throughout the world in its long career, and has played a big role in airlifts for Perth and throughout Western Australia, since its inception in to the Royal Australian Navy in the mid-1970s. These Sikorsky stalwarts have proven their mettle time and again, operating in conditions that give fits to other aircraft. This includes their involvement in one of the most notorious peacetime rescue operations of all time, over thirty years ago, in the Irish Sea.

The Fastnet Race is held biennially, and is among the oldest bluewater sailing races in existence. It runs from the Isle of Wight, across the Irish Sea and around Fastnet Rock, before returning to Plymouth. The race has historically been one of the toughest ocean races in the world, as the Irish Sea can provide conditions that are difficult for many yachts.

However, in the 1970s, a succession of races featuring gentle weather conditions had lulled the fleet in to a false sense of security. This was rudely contradicted by the conditions that confronted the 300+ boat fleet in 1979. Winds reaching up to Force 10, the result of an intense low, produced a sharp sea state that brutalised the fleet. Twenty-five boats were sunk, and with a fleet of such a size, the combined efforts of both the British and the Irish rescue services were required to winch many of the yachtsmen to safety.

The enormity of the rescue effort was provided by the vaunted fleet of Sea King helicopters, who were able to effect rescues despite the appalling weather conditions. Over 150 sailors were winched out of the cold Irish Sea during that race. Despite this, eighteen sailors were lost.

Airlifts in Perth and throughout Western Australia are still, to this day, aided by these ubiquitous helicopters, and their hard-wearing nature means they are likely to remain in this position for some time. Some designs, quite simply, are timeless.