The name Fastnet is familiar to millions of listeners as one of the regions of the BBC Shipping Forecast. In Ireland, the landmark behind the name is equally well known.
Cape Clear and the Fastnet Rock
The Fastnet Rock is the southernmost point in Ireland, 6.5km southwest of the rocky but inhabited Cape Clear Island, near Roaringwater Bay. This isolated rock was originally named simply Carraig Aonar or 'lonely rock' but it later gained the nickname of 'The Teardrop of Ireland' since it was the last sight of Ireland seen by generations of emigrants to America. The southerly position of the Fastnet Rock meant it was an extremely important point in navigating the North Atlantic sea lanes, as the rocky coast and frequently stormy weather made this a dangerous coast for ships.
The First Lighthouse
In 1847, over 90 lives were lost when an American packet ship was lost off nearby Crookhaven. The Commissioners of Irish Lights decided to place a lighthouse on Fastnet. This first tower was made of cast-iron plates bolted together, and lined with brick. This lighthouse came into use in 1854, but by 1868 had to be reinforced with an outer iron casing, this time lined with masonry. This was still too weak to withstand the Atlantic gales, and in 1881 the upper section snapped off in a storm.
The Granite Lighthouse
The present lighthouse was designed in 1891 by William Douglass. It took more than five years to build and was finally completed in 1904. It is the tallest and widest rock lighthouse off the coasts of Ireland and Britain. The 54-metre tall tower was constructed from over 2,000 massive blocks of Cornish granite, each hand-cut to dovetail with the surrounding blocks. The blocks, each weighing up to three tonnes, were cut and assembled in Penryn, Cornwall, then shipped to the Fastnet where the foreman James Kavanagh set every one in place.
The lenses of the lighting apparatus were set in a frame, revolving on a mercury float. The light was provided by two paraffin burners until 1969 when the lantern was electrified. The signal is a simple one - a single flash every five seconds. The lighthouse was manned from 1904 until it was automated in 1989. This was one of the loneliest postings off the Irish coast. There were normally six lighthouse keepers, with four on duty at any one time. By changing two men twice a month, each keeper had four weeks on duty and two weeks off. However, high seas often prevented these changeovers, and even in the 1980s when supplies were brought in by helicopter, storms often swamped the landing pad.
The Fastnet Race
The first Fastnet Race was the brainchild of an Englishman, Weston Martyr, in 1925. He proposed it as the first English ocean yacht race. His committee proposed a race of 615 miles, from the Isle of Wight, rounding the Scilly Isles, around the Fastnet Rock, and back. The first race set off from Ryde on 15 August, 1925. As a result of this successful race, the Ocean Racing Club was formed, and the Fastnet Race became a regular occurrence. In the early years, many slower yachts failed to finish the course, giving up when they ran into difficulties.
In 1957, the biennial Admiral's Cup competition was introduced. This Challenge competition was run over a series of races, ending in the Fastnet Race. The race, now run from Cowes to the Fastnet and back to Plymouth, developed the reputation of being one of the toughest ocean races in the world. Originally an Anglo-American competition, other nations soon began to take part, and new designs and materials made ocean racing increasingly competitive.
The 1979 Tragedy
In 1979, a fleet of 303 craft set out on the Fastnet Race, the biggest number ever. The fleet was caught in a sudden vicious storm, and 15 competitors died. This led to many changes in the regulations for ocean races, and an increased awareness of the importance of navigational and electronic aids.
The automated lighthouse is still as good a landmark today as when the tower was first built. The Fastnet Race is as popular as ever, though since 1999 it is no longer part of the Admiral's Cup competition. When the weather allows, it is possible to take a boat trip around the rock with West Cork Coastal Cruises, who are based on Cape Clear Island. In recent years the area has also become popular with whale watchers.