Ted Heath, The Guardian and the Fastnet mutiny of ’89

Roger Justice, David Fairhall and Ted Heath at the launch party - the photo that never appeared
Roger Justice, David Fairhall and Ted Heath at the launch party – the photo that never appeared

The Fastnet

The Guardian newspaper has a long tradition of involvement with sailing, but many of its staff had forgotten all that when David Fairhall and I came up with an idea for a Guardian-sponsored season of ocean racing. The paper was split down the middle by the plan.

It all came to a head in a spectacular fashion one day in early 1989 when every department head refused point blank to run a story and photographs of the launch of our Guardian-sponsored racing yacht. The former Prime Minister, the late Ted Heath, a well known sailor, had agreed to our invitation to launch the boat at a reception in Southampton. Heath was baffled when none of the photographs and copy about the event appeared in the paper. For some of my then colleagues, the combination of a top Tory and yacht racing  was too much to swallow. Mutiny was in the air.

Sailing doesn’t seem to have been a divisive issue in the Guardian’s earlier days. It had been the first sponsor of Francis Chichester, who was knighted for his pioneering solo voyage round the world; the industrial correspondent in the ‘50s and ‘60s was John Anderson, then a well known sailing author; David Fairhall, the defence editor until recently, is author – among many other works  – of a well known series of books on how to pass the yachtmaster exams, and he had also been Chichester’s contact at the Guardian.

The most celebrated sailing connection of all was with the childrens’ author Arthur Ransome, who was a correspondent in Russia for the Manchester Guardian (the original name), married Trotsky’s secretary, and later came back to England and wrote delightfully about fishing in a regular column for the paper, alongside his output of Swallows & Amazons books. His links with the Guardian extended to the Lake District, setting for many of his stories, where he knew the Scott family, then owners of the paper, and their children.

Our ocean racing project was in that long tradition of connections with the sea and sailing, and it was welcomed by the management and certainly by some of the staff, who saw a chance to learn an exciting new sport, at the Guardian’s expense, of course.  For others, the choice of an elitist pastime was a betrayal of  the left of centre credentials of the paper, and would undermine its standing with its core audience. This was a time when the editorial management and the marketing department were struggling to reposition the Guardian closer to the mainstream of consumer society, to drum up more revenue, while the paper itself had moved to the left from its Manchester liberal and free trade origins; we were wandering around in sensitive territory with our project.

The idea had germinated over a pub lunch between myself, then City Editor, and David Fairhall, prompted by our ruminations on an episode of the mid-1980s BBC television programme “In at the deep end” in which a novice team was trained to do the Fastnet Race, but didn’t make it to the finish. We could beat that.

not so serious boating....
not so serious boating….

On a sheet of paper we drew up an outline proposal for sponsoring a staff crew in the Fastnet Race the following year, which we put to Philippa King, the head of marketing. The core of the plan was to write it up for the paper tongue in cheek, a Jerome K Jerome exercise, rather than as a serious attempt to win any races: 8 novice men and women in a boat would be setting off for fun and misadventures. David and I were not novices, but we weren’t ocean racers either. The triumph would be if we could get to the Fastnet Rock and back to the finish in Plymouth in one piece with all the crew .

The quick answer to our proposal was no, so we forgot about it, until many months later, when we had an unexpected call from Philippa: could we revive the project and cost it in more detail? The marketing department sponsored an outdoor challenge every year, but for some reason very little had come its way for 1989. The only rival proposal was from a one-legged mountaineer who was seeking sponsorship for an attempt on Everest (seriously).

The final plan was to spend £25,000 on chartering a Sigma 36 yacht for the Fastnet and its qualifying races, with the money also covering  payment for painting ‘Guardian’ on the sides, a new suit of racing sails displaying the paper’s logo, and specially designed Guardian oilskins. The yacht, which was renamed Guardian Extra, was chartered from Britannia Sailing of Southampton, which also owned True Brit, an identical yacht which the BBC had used for the “In at the deep end” programme. After a day’s introduction to the boat and its equipment, by Roger Justice, the owner of the school, one cold January morning in the Solent, David and I trained the crew for the season, learning as we went. For the race, the yacht would technically be part of Britannia’s Fastnet fleet of half a dozen training boats, but we were left entirely to our own devices from January onwards, which was an important feature of the plan.

The Guardian’s sailing correspondent, Bob Fisher, was said to be furious about our sponsorship, though he had no contact with us at all throughout the year, and what we found out about his views was second hand: he was reported as telling people that it was ridiculous of the Guardian to put a bunch of amateurs in an uncompetitive boat up for an ocean race when professionals (of which he was one) could have used the money to win in style. It seems he never got the Jerome K Jerome point.

We were oversubscribed with crew applications, and spent a number of weekends with potential crew members in the Solent before settling on a crew of six men and two women, the maximum allowed by the race rules on the 36 foot Sigma, a cruiser-racer designed by David Thomas. (Philippa was one of the crew. She went on to cross the Atlantic with Robin Knox-Johnston in his famous round-the-world boat Suhaili, suffering a dismasting and roll over near the Azores.)  David was skipper and I was navigator and deputy. Michael White, then political editor, joined the crew as scribe, with the duty of filing stories to the newspaper.

l to r:: Sarah Adie, David Sharrock, David Fairhall, Peter Rodgers, Philippa King, Michael White, Stephen Cook, Ben Laurance.
l to r:: Sarah Adie, David Sharrock, David Fairhall, Peter Rodgers, Philippa King, Michael White, Stephen Cook, Ben Laurance.

Using David’s Ministry of Defence contacts we borrowed and set up an army short wave radio with which we could be patched through to the Guardian via RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. To file copy, Mike had to sit claustrophobically deep in the back of the boat’s cabin, right underneath the cockpit. Thankfully, he turned out to be immune to seasickness.

Meanwhile, I had heard rumblings of discontent elsewhere in the paper than the sports department. One evening I was invited to a drink in the pub next door to the office by a senior journalist who must have been a candidate for most left wing person on the paper at the time. He was a Maoist, a Wykehamist, a  son of a general,  a peculiarly English combination that was not so unusual that it raised any eyebrows at the Guardian in those days.  He had charm, too, in the gentle way he chided me about the inappropriateness of the project. It was striking (or typical perhaps of his background) that he did find time to mention that his grandfather’s yacht had been a William Fyfe, which is about the smartest name you could possibly have dropped in the pre-war sailing world.

Others, including close friends, were concerned about the impact on the Guardian’s reputation of sponsoring a sport favoured by Tory Prime Ministers and the rich. Our counter argument was that sailing was changing,  boats were becoming relatively cheaper, and far more people without boats were taking it up as a sport, through the boom in sailing schools, many of which focused on selling racing berths on their boats to people of rather more modest means than yacht owners. With at least eight people needed for a race, the demand for crew was always going to be far larger than the number of owners.

I can’t remember whose idea it was to invite Ted Heath to the launch of the refitted and painted yacht, but he accepted. A champagne party was arranged for him at Shamrock Quay in Southampton, with the crew and local sailing celebrities. The champagne was poured over the bow (breaking the bottle would have caused too much damage), pictures were taken and an interview with Ted Heath and an account of the sponsorship were written up. Copy and photographs were transmitted to London in late afternoon. That was when the mutiny broke out.

First the material went to the night news editor, who manages the key decisions about what goes into the paper. He refused to run it, saying it was not news, and sport would have to take it. They threw it back instantly, saying it wasn’t sport, no doubt with the views of their furious sailing correspondent in mind. Nobody could think of a logical reason for foisting it on the foreign department (though I suppose you could say that the Fastnet Rock is in Ireland) and it was sent to features, where it was just as quickly rejected as nothing to do with them.

I got the distinct impression that it was the photo of a former Tory Prime Minister that was doing most to raise the hackles of the department heads. I still find that bizarre, because by 1989, after 10 years of Mrs Thatcher, Ted Heath seemed like a gentle, consensus-seeking one-nation Tory. He was in many ways Mrs Thatcher’s toughest critic.

Finally, they all looked to the business department, where I happened to be editing that day, because I had been unable to change the rota to go to the party. I thought about it very carefully. But finally, even I had to say no: my view was that we would all look ridiculous if an article and photos about the launch of a staff yacht for an offshore race ended up among the city and business stories on the pages I was editing. So we had arrived at deadlock. Nothing appeared.

As it happened, Peter Preston, the editor who had signed for the £25,000, was on holiday that week, and the fiasco prompted him to take a firm line: every piece about the challenge from now on would be published.

Going down to the start. Photo Susannah Rodgers
Going down to the start. Photo Susannah Rodgers

I still have the logbook of the Guardian Extra racing season, and could bore for England with a blow for blow account of the practice races across the English Channel and the 605 mile Fastnet.  We had several calms, when we had to tie lots of ropes together to anchor in the middle of the Channel to stop ourselves going backwards with the tide. This provided one of our triumphs, when the whole fleet was anchored 20 miles off Le Havre one night to await the change of tide. There were carousing sounds coming from other boats nearby, but we resisted the temptation to party, stayed awake, quietly raised the anchor and slipped away as the tide slackened and the wind rose, half an hour before the rest of the fleet noticed we had gone, moving ourselves up to our best race finish when we arrived in Le Havre.

On the published results we always came last as a result of a technicality: at that time the Royal Ocean Racing Club banned sponsorship in all except Class 1, which was made up of the high tech professional racing boats from the Admirals Cup series, which took place in the run-up to the Fastnet. We were sponsored, so we were obliged unwillingly to be the Class 1 no-hopers. When we recalculated our position in the cruiser racer class to which our yacht really belonged, we were respectably up the field, particularly in the Le Havre Race.

 We had some bad weather, especially in the Fastnet Race itself, which goes from Cowes to the Rock and back to Plymouth. We approached the Rock in a Force 9 with a heavy swell. It was hard work, especially when the wind died quickly and left us slopping sickeningly around in 20 foot waves with no power from the sails. During the heavy weather, I listened on the VHF radio to a dramatic incident 15 miles away, when a man was recovered by his fellow crew members after 20 minutes out of sight in the dark in rough water, an extraordinary piece of luck and crew skill.

Peter Rodgers, David Fairhall and Michael White - rounding the Rock
Peter Rodgers, David Fairhall and Michael White – rounding the Rock

Tiredness from the strong winds led to the second Guardian staff mutiny, though this time it was more understandable. We rounded the Rock tired and cold from the bad weather the previous night, and then the sun came out and the sea smoothed, so the boat began to glide along in August warmth with the wind dead behind, which makes for very slow progress unless the spinnaker is flown. Shirts came off, sun lotion came out and within minutes most of the crew was  sunbathing on the side decks or on the cabin top.

There was absolutely no response to a suggestion  – this was the Guardian after all, so orders were a long way from naval style  – that the spinnaker should be brought up and flown. The skipper repeated his polite request, but no-one stirred. The importance to crew health and solidarity of recovering together in the sun was mentioned, as other boats swept past us, spinnakers aloft in the lovely breeze. Finally, the skipper and deputy gave up trying, and defied the mutineers; he and I got the sail flying by ourselves, to groans from the sunbathers, who had to retreat from the cockpit as the boat started surging downwind and the side decks became uncomfortable.

Fastnet welcome home party finds the boat's leftover crisps! l to r: Ben, Georgia and William. Photo Susannah Rodgers.
Fastnet welcome home party finds the boat’s leftover breakfast cereal! l to r: Ben, Georgia and William. Photo Susannah Rodgers.

The Fastnet is a tactically fascinating race because of the strong tides, the rapid variations in weather and the number of headlands which have to be rounded. It is also gruelling work, and during the toughest moments, struggling into wet oilskins in a lurching boat at the dead of night, it is hard to give a convincing answer to the question of why on earth one is doing it; offshore racing all seems much more attractive with hindsight, though the boat itself was great to handle, which was the main reason for choosing 20 years later to buy a cruising version, the Sigma 362.

By far the best part of  the challenge was to find my whole family, Christine, Susannah, Ben, William and Georgia, waiting to meet us at Queen Anne’s Battery marina in Plymouth. Despite their brief mutiny, the novice Guardian crew and David, an excellent skipper, had shown their mettle and learnt to handle the boat well in one of the toughest offshore races in the world,  fighting all the way to the Rock and back to the finish, and a party in Plymouth. Ted Heath wasn’t invited.

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