Left for dead

Did Matt Sheahan let his friends down?

Originally published in The Sunday Times

Thirty years ago, when Matthew Sheahan was 17, he nearly drowned at sea. He survived — only to watch his father’s dead body drift away from the boat they were racing, never to be seen again.

The Sheahans were sailing in the 600-mile Fastnet race from Cowes to Plymouth via the Fastnet rock off southern Ireland, in August 1979. Soon after they passed Land’s End a furious storm arrived, wreaking havoc on more than 300 boats taking part and leading to the greatest air-and-sea rescue of modern times.

Altogether, 15 race crew and six other sailors in the area were killed.

Of the six men on David Sheahan’s boat, Grimalkin, only four would survive. But a bitter controversy divided the survivors — controversy centred on a split-second decision by three of the crew to abandon the boat for the life-raft, leaving the others for dead.

Nick Ward, one of the abandoned men, published a hair-raising and award-winning account two years ago: Left for Dead drew inevitable comparisons with Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, in which one mountaineer cut himself free from his injured friend. The tone was angry and hurt: after nearly three decades, clearly he hadn’t been able to forgive and forget. Now Matt Sheahan, stung by what he regards as accusations of cowardice and betrayal, has decided to go public with his side of the story. “I’ve felt mounting pressure,” he says bitterly. “If I don’t speak now, what has been published so far will become fact by default.”

Born in 1962, he looks rather older than 47. As you would expect of a sailor, his freckled skin shows sun damage — rosy colour and large areas of flaking skin. But he also has prematurely white hair: it’s tempting, if foolish, to suggest this has something to do with his experiences 30 years ago.

He started sailing when he was five, in Surrey. His father David — head of finance at a computing company in London — had been a keen long-distance cyclist until he was hit by a lorry, so he tried sailing instead and took his eldest son with him. (There were two other children, never quite so keen on boats.)

Father and son grew into the sport together and graduated from inland sailing on dinghies to sailing at sea on ever larger boats — so big, eventually, that they needed additional crew for their weekend-long adventures across the Channel.

In 1978, David Sheahan bought Grimalkin to sail in the following year’s Fastnet. A sailing club friend, Gerry Winks, 35, joined their crew and through advertising they found three others: Mike Doyle and Nick Ward, both 24, and 19-year-old Dave Wheeler. By the time of the race the six had sailed together a great deal in Grimalkin.

Matt was beside himself. The Fastnet would be far harder and more thrilling than the races they’d done before. “Anybody can cope with the lack of sleep for 24 hours,” he explains. “But a six-day race like the Fastnet is different. The first night you don’t sleep from sheer excitement. The second, you’re thinking: Jesus, how will we cope? The third, you sleep soundly . . .”

That’s not how it turned out. The race started on August 11. Two days later, winds were reported at force 6, with gusts of force 7. Forecasters predicted much worse to come that night.

As Sheahan describes it now, the wind rapidly shifted by more than 90 degrees, so that mountainous waves ran in one direction with other mountainous waves running across them, in an unpredictable pattern. Some of the waves were 80ft high. Worse, they were breaking at the top — dropping vast quantities of water on boats in the troughs below.

First, David Sheahan tried riding Grimalkin along the waves. Then he rode across them. But it was dark, the swells were unpredictable. At one point, Grimalkin slid down the face of one wave just as another appeared in front (“like a roadblock”, Matt recalls), causing the boat to somersault through 360 degrees and chucking the crew into the water.

“Solid water and bubbles rushed past my face,” Matt says. “My limbs streamed out as I was towed underwater by my harness line. I had no idea which way was up or what would happen next.”

The boat righted itself and somehow he got back on board.

In some situations, the decision to call for help is easy because a single catastrophe has occurred. But sailors don’t (or didn’t then) issue maydays just because of a strong breeze. When the breeze becomes a storm, they struggle on and even being washed overboard several times doesn’t justify packing it in.

By dawn, however, everybody was cold and worn out and increasingly incapable of making rational decisions. So at six o’clock David Sheahan went below with his son to radio for help.

The cabin was in chaos: food, equipment, internal ballast and even joinery tumbled about freely. As David sent out his message, Matt heard a dreadful rumble and the boat did another 360-degree roll. As it came upright, he found his father slumped over the chart table, unconscious and bleeding from the head. He had been hit by a tin of food.

Matt remembers cradling his father, who mumbled incoherently. “He winced as I sprayed plastic skin onto the gash. It was the last definite response I got from him,” he says.

In Left for Dead, Nick Ward describes Matt at this moment as terrified: “He was distraught, his eyes wide with fear, his face pallid and drawn.” The disasters continued. The radio stopped working after the antenna broke. The flares, let off by hands numbed with cold, fired uselessly into the waves. This is when the crew started to argue about whether to launch the life-raft. Matt, the de facto skipper aged just 17 — yet to take his driving test or his A-levels — tried to consult his semi-conscious father. Then a wave turned Grimalkin upside down.

Matt came to, trapped under the side of the boat by his harness, with insufficient slack to get his head above water unless — unpredictably — the waves dipped. To release his harness, he had to take off his inflated life-jacket. It was a struggle, but he managed. Then he saw Dave Wheeler nearby. “I was elated,” he says. He had assumed that he was the only one to get clear from under the boat.

Meanwhile, trapped under the boat, Mike had found himself in a pocket of air and heard Matt’s father shouting for help. Mike opened his knife and cut first David Sheahan’s lifeline, the rope which tied his harness to the boat, then his own. When he surfaced, Mike saw Matt’s father again, a few feet from the boat, shouting for help. Mike had to decide whether to swim to help David, or towards the boat. He chose survival, swimming to the boat and climbing onto the hull and, in doing so, turning the boat the right way up.

The force of the boat righting itself hurled Matt back inside, where he landed on top of Gerry and Nick in the cockpit. “They lay motionless in the bottom, which was swilling with water,” he recalls. “Nick’s face and lips were blue. Gerry had a facial injury.” Standing up, Matt found himself looking over the cockpit at a body face down in the water, already 50ft or so upwind. “I knew instantly who it was. I knew, too, that he had drowned.”

There was an odd silence: the mast had broken and although the storm still raged there was no longer the terrifying noise of wind whistling in the rigging.

He turned to help Dave Wheeler aboard, then stumbled across the cockpit to pull Mike up the other side. Then he watched blankly as the boat gradually distanced itself from his drowned father. “I was numb, exhausted, in shock and bewildered. You don’t know what to think. The storm was so ridiculously overwhelming, unbelievable . . . It was like watching a film.”

He snapped out of it when Mike, convinced that Grimalkin was about to sink, urged him to get into the life-raft. Mike was already in, as was Dave. Nick and Gerry remained motionless in the water swilling in the cockpit.

It was the most important decision Matt would ever make.

“My instinct was to stay on the boat,” says Matt. “My father and I had frequently repeated the quip we had heard about stepping up to the life-raft from the masthead” — at the very last moment as it sinks.

All the same, he stepped into the life-raft, which for the next hour or so spun the three men up and down the sides of the steep waves like a terrifying fairground ride.

It is harrowing to read Nick’s description of coming to and finding himself alone with Gerry. At first he thought Gerry was dead, but then he managed to revive him — clearing the snot and vomit from his mouth and feeling the sandpapery rasp of his whiskers as he gave the kiss of life. He prayed, and chuntered aimlessly, to keep Gerry alive for as long as he could.

However, Sheahan says the coroner’s report indicates that Gerry had died while the boat was upside down.

Who is right? Nobody will ever know.

We’ve all been struck, at times, by the way our own recollection of events clashes with other people’s. In a case like this, those discrepancies can cause the most terrible pain for decades afterwards.

On the boat Nick successively boiled with anger at the idea that he and Gerry had been abandoned, then sank into despairing guilt at the thought that perhaps his crewmates had drowned.

It did not make him exactly happy, when he was eventually rescued by helicopter, to discover that his friends were alive. Instead of rejoicing he felt — quite understandably — angry and resentful.

In the immediate aftermath, Nick overcame those mixed feelings sufficiently to visit the Sheahan family, go to church with them, accompany Matt to Ireland to recover Grimalkin and even to visit the manufacturers of the life-raft with him. But gradually his suspicions drove a wedge between Nick and the other survivors. How could they leave him? Why couldn’t they have felt his pulse?

To which the answer, from Matt, is that “it’s impossible to feel a pulse with numb fingers”. Sheahan doesn’t much go in for wailing and gnashing of teeth. Perhaps sailors never do. But it’s a little frustrating to listen as he skirts around the emotional highs and lows.

When I ask about his first face-to-face encounter with his mother, after the loss of his father, his reply begins with a hanging clause that is calculated to take us past that and back onto a boat. “One of the first things she said to me after we had gone through the agony of it all, without me asking, was, ‘What you must know is that if you want to carry on sailing, or give up, I’m entirely behind you’.”

He took her at her word and — amazingly — went out racing again three days later. Two weeks after that he was back at sea, racing to Le Havre. Then he happened to meet a man who owned the prototype of Grimalkin and invited him to sail in it: “It was only a couple of weeks later that I raced with him in that identical boat. It was bloody good, it got me back into the saddle.”

Two years later Matt took part in the next Fastnet race, too. His boat won the Clarion cup for the best-placed British entry by handicap.

It’s said that near-death experiences can make people less cautious afterwards. Matt broadly agrees: he has since taken up skiing and gliding as well: “Some people think I’m a thrill-seeker. I’m not, but I was lucky that I was young enough to be able to heal quickly. If it had happened to me now, two years older than my father was when he died, I’m not sure I’d cope.”

It is not entirely surprising that he seems relatively unmoved by the events of Fastnet 1979: after all, it happened half a lifetime ago and he has told the story (if only to himself) many times since then. What is much more recent is the accusation of abandonment in Nick’s book — and on this subject Matt’s feelings are clearly as raw as his skin: “Nick talks about the three of us snubbing him. He suggests there was a pact between us never to talk about this again, as if it was shameful . . . There wasn’t.”

Matt seems not to have noticed — or not to value — the more conciliatory passages in Nick’s book. Towards the end of Left for Dead, Nick recalls talking to Matt soon after they were rescued and learning that he had watched his father’s dead body drift away. “Hearing this from Matt was shocking. I really felt for him. Whoever had cut the line did it to save David’s life, but in doing so there was always the risk that he would be washed away.” Impressively, aged just 17, Matt protected the identity of the crewman who had cut the lifeline. “I respected him for that,” Nick writes.

Matt continued to protect Mike for nearly three decades and has gone public with the detail only after running into Mike again last year and talking it all through at length.

Plainly, Mike still hadn’t got over what happened but he seems to have come to terms with it now. For his own part, Matt still doesn’t know how he would react in the same circumstances. “But what I do know is that it’s damned easy to be wise after the event,” he says. “Mike did what he believed was right at the time. It felt good to be able to look him in the eye — and to tell him that he did the right thing.”

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