Nick Ward was left for dead in the middle of the deadliest storm in the history of modern sailing. The Fastnet Race of 1979 began in perfect weather conditions but, within 48 hours of the most beautiful sunset Ward had ever seen, it turned into a horrifying storm. By the time it was over, 15 sailors had lost their lives. Ward remained silent on the events of that race, telling no one what he had been through – not Hollywood when they came knocking or even his family. After 27 years, he was finally able to lay down his story in the visceral account, Left For Dead.
Your father introduced you to the world of sailing as a child. Why did you then fall in love with it and did you know it would play such an important role in your life?
I had no choice really because in Hamble you either played hockey or you went sailing. I did both but sailing was the major sport of mine. Until, of course, I had the brain haemorrhage.
Ward suffered a brain haemorrhage at the age of 15 that left him in hospital for months, long-term weakness to his left-side and epilepsy. Throughout the Fastnet disaster he had the continual worry that an epileptic attack was imminent – and no access to his medication. But we’ll return to this subject in a moment.
So, why choose sailing as your major sport?
Initially it was the social event. Mates growing up sailing various classes of dinghy, starting off with Optimist, Mirror, Merlin Rocket, and going sailing single handed. So it was a social group. Some of that group are now in the Merchant Navy as I wanted to join.
Is that something you regret not being able to join?
No, not at all because I wouldn’t have met Chris otherwise.
Chris is his wife, to whom the book is dedicated. They met on one of his visits to hospital, keeping a check on the damage done by the brain haemorrhage. She’s sitting here with us while we talk.
Do you think you drew strength from the brain haemorrhage that you wouldn’t have had otherwise?
Definitely, yes. It was something that I wouldn’t wish upon anybody but certainly being in surroundings dominated by machines and wonderful caring people gives you inspiration to recover. I had to go sailing again. I drew inspiration from the people around me. I kept an autograph book and got all of the doctors to sign it. Some of the inscriptions they wrote in it are really etched on my brain now. What was that saying? Never judge the height of a mountain ‘til you reach the top – and you know, that sticks in your brain. And I looked at it and it was signed by Sister Sampson and the other sister on the ward was Sister Jolly! I had a Sister Sampson and a Sister Jolly! One was Scottish and the other one was so beautiful. Had a lovely bottom.
So you simply lay there dreaming of sailing again?
Every waking moment and most sleeping moments too.
Finally you had the chance to enter the Fastnet Race when you were 23 – some years later than you’d first anticipated. How did you react?
Oh I was overjoyed. I knew I’d do it one day. Everything seemed to come together meshed at the right time.
When the race had begun it was quite early on that you saw this amazing red sky. Was that something you were expecting to see or did you recognise it as a bad omen?
Both. I’d been told about these sunsets you get in the junction between the western approaches, the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea, so I was expecting some form of spectacular sunset but the combination of the colours was nothing I’d ever seen before – so it was a harbinger of something bad.
And have you ever seen anything like it since?
No. My son has just come back from a trip, he’s an oceanographer, and he’s come back from an Atlantic trench 300 miles into the Atlantic. He showed me a picture on his phone and it was similar, but not quite. It was scary, but my boy’s a man, he’s been further in the Atlantic than I have.
When the storm had reached its full force your crewmates wanted to abandon your yacht, The Grimalkin, and get in the life raft. You objected – in vain. What was your reasoning then?
It’s something again, like the red sky, it’s something of a tradition in the marine field that you stay with the boat rather than leave it and the life raft is rather like a parachute, it’s a last resort. But given the situation those guys were in I may have done the same. There’s no blame. I hope I wouldn’t have done, but…
Following the debate as to whether the crew should get in the life raft Ward found himself back in the sea. He pulled himself back aboard, and then his crewmate, Gerry. On looking around the yacht he saw the life raft had gone and the harnesses were empty. He had been left for dead. Shortly after this, Gerry died in his arms.
Seemingly, once they were in the life raft, they were rescued quite quickly. Do you know why and how that was?
I don’t know because I was unconscious. You’d have to ask them. I’ve spoken to one crew of 1979, the owner’s son, whilst we went back to revisit the boat and find out where she was. Not conclusive.
The two vessels must have become quite separated for you not to be seen?
Yeah, in a storm of that magnitude you get seas that are twice the length of the boat. The boat is 30ft long with squall coming from all directions – totally surrounded by water, both seaborne and airborne, it’s so disorientating.
So in fact they could have been quite close together, with nobody knowing it?
Absolutely. I mean I didn’t even know there was someone next to me in the water until I pulled myself onto the boat. So you can be inches away from somebody and not see them.
Ward spent the next 20 hours alone, bailing water to prevent the yacht from sinking, looking for food and drinking water, fearing an epileptic attack, talking to his now dead friend, Gerry, and hearing his father’s voice instruct him.
How lucid were you through all this?
You know the saying of the little boy with the finger in the dyke? I felt I had to do something to lessen the chances of the boat sinking, because unfortunately it was sinking. So therefore I was able to draw upon using Gerry to talk to – he died in my arms – and through Gerry I was able to access thoughts of my father who became a voice in my head – it’s difficult to explain. They were childhood memories that came back, things he used to tell me when he was gardening – ‘Get off the garden you white devil’, Churchill’s quotes, ‘When you’re going through hell keep going’ – that sort of thing – ‘Pull yourself together man!’ For me it was almost a revelation and I knew it was him because he called me Nicholas, not Nick.
Eventually a helicopter arrived. You were the last man they reached still alive. What were your feelings?
I was crying my eyes out. I was pulled up second, after Gerry. Ironically tomorrow I’m going sailing on Grimalkin and I’m meeting the chap that actually pulled me up out of the water and the helicopter pilot, which is cool. I met them at the boat show in 1980, didn’t talk much, we were both guarded about the whole thing. It’s going to be quite a cathartic thing.
How long did it take you to return to the water and to sailing?
Once you’ve started sailing you never give it up. It’s like football or cricket or any sport you love, and being in close proximity to water I couldn’t get away from it. I was back sailing seriously the next year – I did a Solent race and a couple of Channel races. The owners son, Matthew, who was heavily traumatised [his father was lost at sea], was out dinghy sailing the next weekend. That’s how much of a draw sailing is. It’s better than sex! Sorry I didn’t mean to say that.
Having not spoken about it at all before the book, how are you finding the media interest?
It would be easy for me to say, ‘Yes it’s been cathartic and I feel a much better person for it’, but that’s bollocks. Through the help of Sinead, the co-author, and through Chris, my family and Nicola, everyone at AC Black, has been very helpful. I feel now that I’ve got my demons out, well some of the demons, I can talk about it. I wouldn’t have been able to have this conversation a year ago, or three years ago, because that’s how long ago we started writing, because I was just too emotionally involved in it.
So how did your co-author, Sinead O’Brien, make the breakthrough?
Sinead’s mum knew the story of this boy, me, being left in the Irish Sea and being a documentary maker she sniffed a story. So I looked at her CV which a friend had sent me. She came to meet me and I think she calls it an organic relationship – Chris will call it something else – but she was able to draw things from me that I’d never spoken about. And we built up a friendship and that’s how it went on. As a writer and publisher at 3 o’clock in the morning sending attachments she’d say ‘This is rubbish, do it again’, so I’d do it again. Basically that’s the sort of environment we were working in – very professional.
I heard you’d turned Hollywood away once before. Is there a chance of having your story on screen now and how would you feel about that?
You’d have to ask my agent! It sounds pompous I know, but you’d have to ask her. But yes, I do believe it’s being talked about. I’d hate to see it being made as one of these out of context pieces which are sickening. I’d like to see it done realistically and true.
I imagine it would be compared to Touching the Void if it did come out.
These guys [his crewmates] were in a similar sort of situation, not an us or them situation, but a situation where you can’t imagine how high the seas were, you can’t imagine what you’d do in that situation, so they made a call and that’s fine. I hold nothing against them. Maybe I would have done the same. I hope not but maybe. Just one more thing – Joe Simpson is a cool guy, I’d like to be as cool as him!
Technology has improved immensely since your Fastnet Race, but what would happen if the weather changed without warning in today’s world?
That’s a two-pronged question. Because these days we have better weather forecasting facilities, we have GPS, we have weather facts, we have all sorts of satellite communication which predicts weather onboard. But the coastguard and the Royal Navy are very much understaffed and I was talking to a fairly senior guy in the navy yesterday, and this is unofficial, but he told me that no longer would they be able to call on the resources that this country called on at that time 30 years ago.
It is and it’s the fault of the government. I’m sorry it’s not political but it’s the government.
And there would, presumably, be more people out there now too?
I mean the Hamble River in 1979 had about 3,000 boats on, now the Hamble River has about 12,000 boats.
How have your family reacted now that they’ve finally heard the story behind your survival? What were their thoughts?
Well this is where I well up because, um, without Chris and the love of my family and Elizabeth, my daughter, and Sam, my son, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I used them, as I did Gerry, as a sounding board and they’re very much alive. And Elizabeth who is quick, bright and sharp was a sounding board for me – her grammar is spot on.[Chris Ward:] The family didn’t know what went on on the boat. And since we’ve read it and our daughter read it she cried because Nick had never spoken about it. And that goes for all the family really doesn’t it. [Nick Ward:] Yeah my parents, my brother. In fact my brother told me things that I didn’t know, nobody knew, but Sinead was the catalyst for writing.
And now your son is doing things similar. How does that make you feel?
I bought him a Mirror dinghy years ago and I think because I’m used to boats I kind of hung it around and slightly frightened him but it’s what you do in dinghies. And now I’m really, really pleased that he’s discovered it for himself. And this is big time stuff, he’s testing out oceanographic equipment, he’s designing mini-submersibles, he’s designing all sorts of hi-tech equipment and I’m very proud of him – a good man. He’s got the opportunity to go to Antarctica next year to an underwater lake 250 metres below the ice cap. They’re going to drill into the lake – goodness knows what they’ll find. So he’s cool. He went out on that boat a boy and returned a man.