When Kevin Escoffier’s boat sank in the Southern Ocean within two minutes, he was rescued by fellow Vendee Globe competitor Jean Le Cam. Pete Goss examines the expert seamanship involved
On 30 November, whilst sailing at 27 knots on starboard tack, disaster struck the Vendee Globe IMOCA 60 PRB.
A strong SW air stream behind a front had thrown up a large and confused sea state. Kevin Escoffier, lying in third place in the 2020 Vendeee Globe Race, was 840 miles SW of Cape Town.
‘In four seconds the boat nosedived, the bow folded at 90 ̊. I put my head down in the companionway. A wave was coming, I had time to send one text before the wave fried the electronics. It was completely crazy’.
THE NIGHTMARE UNFOLDS
The infrastructure and procedures that lie behind the rescue, supported by modern communications, are a marvel in their complexity.
Escoffier had a couple of minutes to send a short message to his support team:
‘I need assistance, I am sinking, this is not a joke’.
He donned his survival suit, which he never stows away, and made his way into the cockpit.
Smoke from burning electronics followed him up to a quickly settling deck that was sluggish and unable to rise above the waves.
He had been unable to access his grab bag in the rush of rising water below.
He struggled to get to the liferaft at the stern of the boat which was by now underwater.
Trying to fasten his EPIRB to the pushpit he was swept off the deck along with his automatically inflating liferaft, the boat never to be seen again.
Thankfully he has a routine of always carrying a personal transponder in the pocket of his wet weather trousers which were now under his survival suit.
If there was ever an argument for preparation then here is the cold graphic reality.
A professionally-prepared, top-level ocean-going vessel, brimming with safety gear and watertight bulkheads, succumbs in minutes.
It’s a fascinating episode with a successful outcome that offers much for us mere cruising mortals to reflect on.
At 1346 (UTC) the PRB shore team received his frantic text.
This was immediately passed to Jaques Caraës, the Vendeee Globe Race Director whose team swung into action as they coordinated the rescue in conjunction with MRCC Cape Town, MRCC Cross Griz Nez, PRB support team and Meteo France.
Jean Le Cam, sailing appropriately named Yes We Cam! was closest and immediately dispatched with an ETA of only two hours.
He quickly found Escoffier, made voice contact but was unable to pick him up in confused 5m seas and 30-32 knot winds.
Boat handling was challenging, particularly as his folding propeller wouldn’t initially open.
Close proximity seemed dangerous and Le Cam lost sight of Escoffier and couldn’t establish radio contact or pick up the AIS transponder which was inhibited by the large seas.
The rescue area, engulfed by darkness, began to widen.
There would be no quick fix and so three other Vendee Globe skippers were diverted as a search protocol was drawn up using Météo-France’s new drift prediction programme.
The skippers approached with three reefs in the main and idling engines to search three distinct zones based on three, six and nine hours’ drift.
Frustration engulfed Vendee Globe race HQ as intermittent distress beacon signals appeared not to follow a pattern.
On being directed to a beacon position that corresponded with the predicted drift pattern, Le Cam, out of the corner of his eye, caught a brief reflection of light across a wave.
What followed seems a blur to both of them but Escoffier underlines that it was his training and physical strength that quickly heaved him out of turbulent danger and into the cockpit.
At 0118 a dripping Le Cam and Escoffier suddenly appeared on a continuously running video Skype call between Vendee Globe Race HQ and Le Cam’s navigation console.
It was done – the exuberant chat that followed said it all with an emotional Escoffier looking happy and healthy.
A REMARKABLE RESCUE
Escoffier subsequently explained that although he can’t remember if they agreed to delay the rescue, they were only able to share a few words on that first contact, there seemed to be a tacit understanding that it would be best to wait for light and calmer conditions.
Escoffier felt that a night in the liferaft was the safer option;
‘I spent the night quite well. I mean I wasn’t comfortable, but in my head it was better, I was sure that the day after someone would be coming with less winds and less waves, and then I’d be able to get from the liferaft to the boat.
‘I had a bit of trouble sleeping during the night, I had been eating a bit and drinking the water I had on board.
‘Close to the morning I heard a sail flapping so I got out, put my head out of the raft and I saw it wasn’t dark because of the moon, even with no sun we were able to see very well and I saw Jean just above me, between 100–200 metres from me.
‘I asked him ‘Now, we’re doing it now?’ And he said ‘Yes, yes let’s do it now’.’
Of course, as was the case with my rescue of Raphaël Dinelli in the 1996 Vendee Globe, it wasn’t over.
Amongst Escoffier’s many emotions was such a strong sense of letting his sponsors and team down that it reduced him to tears.
A burden that will have started to lift with Jean-Jacques Laurent of PRB, brimming with pride and happiness as he reassured Escoffier over the SatCom;
‘It’s only a thing, it doesn’t matter Kevin. No worries, it’s all good. Zen Zen’.
Jean Le Cam, who offered a magnanimous response to Escoffier’s heartfelt apology for upsetting his race which had been going so well.
‘That doesn’t matter. Last time it was me who upset Vincent’s race.’
Ironically it was Le Cam who was rescued by PRB during the last race.
For all that one mustn’t underestimate the aftermath of having someone randomly crash into your bubble of focused solitude, it’s wonderful to have the company.
They clearly had fun for the five days that Escoffier remained on board.
THE WIDER IMPACT
At the same time it throws your hard- earned single-handed rhythm.
There is a lot to juggle, from disrupted routines to extra daily responsibilities, a mountain of press interest and organising the logistics of dropping off the casualty.
Alone again, deeply tired, it’s a lot to reframe as you are forced to once again spool up your internal gyro for high- octane single-handed racing in the Southern Ocean.
A new goal might be required, for compensation will never make good being dropped back to the following weather system.
In Le Cam’s case the episode concluded very quickly and as we go to press Le Cam is in fourth place, leading the chasing pack. Le Cam certainly deserves another shot at winning the race.
Often forgotten is the suffering that families have to endure.
Completely impotent, theirs is a deeply harrowing experience as they wait for news.
In the case of Raphaël Dinelli, his partner Virginie had to wait for two days as experts slowly and very publicly narrowed his chances of survival to nil.
Raphaël, seemingly returned from the dead, asked her to marry him and so our shared experience concluded with me as best man as we celebrated their love and future.
Something that Jerry Roufe’s family were denied when he was lost without trace in the Pacific not long after Raphaël’s rescue. He was a lovely man.
This turmoil was captured by Escoffier on being delivered to Réunion island by the French Navy who had picked him up from Le Cam.
‘I’m still a bit melancholic today on dry land. It’s a complicated transition phase. I’m still disappointed to have had to abandon on the Vendee Globe, to have lost a boat. I have the impression it has been much more complicated for my family than for me, so I can’t wait to see them again.
‘Don’t forget … We get to live our passion and we impose it on those who love us. There are certain events that we would like to avoid!’
Theirs was to be a Christmas to remember with lots to digest.
Once the dust has settled I have no doubt that the experience will stay with everyone involved. Rightly proud of their input, life-long friendships will have been forged.
For all its disruption I still feel that I had the best experience out of all of my fellow competitors.
What can be better than to save a life and make a life-long friend.
It wasn’t all bad, I still smile at memories of getting completely plastered with Raphaël on New Year’s Eve.
A year later we fulfilled a pledge from that drunken night by competing in the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre.
Life goes on and is richer for these experiences.
PREPARE FOR THE WORST
No doubt more will be learned once we are able to properly talk to those involved but these are some of my immediate reflections:
Panic is a killer and Escoffier getting the essentials done, under huge duress, in such a short period of time underlines his cool headed professionalism.
In my view, visualisation is the main tool in the box to rebuff panic.
Walk every conceivable scenario through in your mind such that you can smell it, taste it even.
This offers practical solutions: Escoffier’s survival suit was by the companionway, a personal beacon was in his pocket and he was able to take the first steps to survival without thinking.
Those first, previously visualised steps, are the ones that smother panic and clear space in your mind to flick through your menu of scenarios, draw down and then prioritise appropriate actions.
Know your personal safety gear.
Before the British Steel Challenge I put all my safety gear on and played in the surf.
It might look daft but I learned so much. Most training, and gear development, is carried out in a pool and I can tell you that surf will soon ‘out’ hidden problems:
Crotch strap length; your knife being inaccessible when the life jacket is inflated and under load; the importance of doing up your cuffs, ankles and neck, for example.
This resulted in all sorts of little modifications including the addition of bespoke pockets.
HAVE THE BEST SAFETY GEAR
Know your raft and the equipment within it. Training, training, training is essential.
Escoffier was quite at home in his liferaft, he knew what was required of him and what resources he had to hand.
We should all go on a sea survival course and use any opportunity to supplement it.
If there is one thing that would have made all the difference with Raphaël’s rescue it would have been a handheld GPS and waterproof VHF pre-packed into his raft.
This would have enabled us to communicate and establish exactly where he was much earlier.
It would also have turned him from a passive casualty into a proactive entity with hope.
This ‘ownership’ has a huge effect on survival times for it feeds the will to live and can make the difference between discovering a body or a rescue celebration.
It’s empowering to nurture this and there is no reason not to get your raft repacked with the addition of equipment.
Ask if you can watch, sit in it, chat to the experts, and add a picture of your family.
It might make all the difference.
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Having an old-timer like Jean Le Cam meant that years of experience was at the fingertips of the hand on the helm.
He knew his boat intimately and was able to handle her in challenging conditions where a few metres either way could mean life or death.
He himself had been rescued during the last Vendeee Globe so had a unique insight.
Without an engine, which has rightly been made compulsory, I was worried about over-shooting Raphaël and so I trailed a line with all my fenders strung along it.
I put a series of bowlines just after each fender so that he had something to pass his arm through; remember, through cold a casualty’s hands will be dramatically inhibited.
I ran a line between the stanchions that hung down to the waterline so that should we make contact he had something to hook his arm through.
I also placed a couple of life jacket strops either side of the boat so that I could quickly clip him to Aqua Quorum if the opportunity arose.
It was something that proved to be well worth doing as we bounced about in chaotic conditions.
Le Cam’s folding propeller wouldn’t initially open.
When on a long passage under sail it’s worth running up your engine every few days to ensure that all is well.
This should include engaging gear both forward and astern to make sure debris hasn’t snagged on the prop.
Proximity doesn’t necessarily mean safety, for in rough weather the rescuer can very quickly turn into a threat.
Be prepared with the moral courage to make tough decisions which carry life- long implications – it must have been awful to sail away and leave Escoffier to the night.
Unquestionably the right decision, shared by both of them, but difficult to live with and explain to his family if he had not been found.
These moral dilemmas are worth thinking about so that you have a well to pull from when needed.
Once Le Cam found Escoffier again he wasn’t going to muck about.
From experience it must have been a harrowing night as he desperately searched for a life that had slipped through his fingers once already.
A COLLABORATIVE EFFORT
Thankfully all ended well.
It was a quite remarkable rescue made possible by numbers, technology, sound seamanship and disciplined preparation.
A big fleet gifted a large resource with four search boats diverted in a matter of hours.
A broad support team was able to coordinate through communication technology – technology that at the end of the day relied upon good honest seamanship in the form of a 61-year-old sea dog undertaking his fifth Vendee Globe.
None of which would have made any difference had Escoffier not been able to act with cool professionalism under fire.
Bravo to all of them.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM A VENDEE GLOBE RESCUE
BEWARE BOAT MODIFICATIONS
Make sure that your boat structure, something that is often taken for granted, is sound.
You must get it properly surveyed on purchase, re-surveyed at least every five years and immediately on grounding.
I chat to boat builders, surveyors and search the web to see if a particular production boat has had common issues over the years.
You might, for example, discover a particular ‘tell’ to look out for on boats built after a certain year due to a change in production procedures.
Scout the local club or RNLI station for any gossip of collision or grounding that requires clarification.
Be very, very wary of modifications.
Imagine watching your bow standing on end and looking down the companionway to see a wave engulfing the accommodation.
Not something any of us would want or expect to see – I bet Escoffier filled his boots!
But big boots they are for Escoffier is the real deal as a seasoned competitive sailor with the sea in his DNA.
His brother is a commercial fisherman on the notorious Plateau des Minquiers and his father has won the Transat Jacques Vabre three times as well as the Route du Rhumb.
Having studied engineering and mechanics in structures he will be searching for answers as to the catastrophic failure of his boat.
Exotic in nature, one has to wonder if retrofitting foils to an old boat with the huge elevation in shock loads will have played its part.
His bewildered post-rescue comment that they had added 200kg of structure might be telling, in that it was at the forefront of his stunned mind.
THINK ABOUT THE CASUALTY
For all the technology we have it’s still hard to pin down a life raft at sea.
Jean Le Cam commented how in the wilderness of the sea, the night can be your friend as it allows for the pinpoint accuracy of light.
Smoke is its opposite number during daylight and is very effective to aircraft, but as I found when the RAAF dropped huge smoke flares by Raphaël it quickly dissipates in strong winds and was useless from sea level.
It was the idea, put forward by one of the rear observers, to fly low level towards Aqua Quorum in transit with Raphael that saved him.
They flashed their landing lights above him from which I could get a bearing. Continued passes eventually walked me to Raphaël’s position.
I wasn’t able to see him until we both popped up on the top of respective waves at the same time.
He was shockingly close.
As a consequence we have a kite that is a radar reflector and carries an LED light.
It is simple, not reliant on electronics and could make the difference when a rescue has boiled down to its close and dirty conclusion.
For a similar one, visit www.landfallnavigation.com/sky-alert-parafoil-kite.html
Plan how you’re going to tackle treating the casualty – Raphael was in a frightful state when I picked him up.
Fortunately I had a comprehensive medical pack and lots of experience from the Royal Marines and other areas of life.
I had purposefully vacuum-packed an additional sleeping bag and thermals.
We always carry a couple of ‘YuYu’ hot water bottles which are just under a metre long and perfect for warming up a casualty.
A search pattern is complex, dynamic and difficult to manage. With a full crew it should be a full-time and crucial job.
The skipper and one other should discuss and practice a simple procedure that can be adapted to the weather conditions.
For Raphaël Dinelli I chose to work downwind in an ever widening cone from his last position.
Single- handed on a very rough and dark night, with no time for the chart table, I could build up a simple visual scribble on the plotter. Something that I could reference with a glance as the cone developed with each gybe.
This was done under jib alone so that my focus was on lookout as opposed to complex sail handling.
Time was lost raising the main to work back up to windward but I felt it was time well spent.
One of the biggest frustrations of Raphaël’s rescue was the lack of pattern to his position updates.
A secondary depression and front meant that his raft was galloping all over the place.
With little weather information we were essentially guessing and it wasn’t good enough.
EPIRBs are a lot more accurate these days but still proved erratic for Le Cam.
It seems that the game changer was Météo-France’s new Mothy drift prediction programme which added weight to one of the position reports.
It was here that Le Cam found Escoffier.
Most of us don’t have access to Vendee Globe resources and I wonder if manufacturers may consider developing a basic search grid to overlay a chart plotter.
A simple solution that could be orientated to an ‘on the ground’ sense of drift.
It could ultimately make the difference between a quick fix and a drawn out episode.
Practice using your peripheral vision.
An empty horizon can reveal all sorts if you rescan it whilst focussing well above it.
This doesn’t feel natural and needs practice but I use it all the time to great effect and often pick up things that others have missed with binoculars. Be precious about your night vision.
If you have crew, put someone just forward of the mast and turn off your nav lights.
If they need relieving make sure the replacement stands with them until confident of their night vision.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PETE GOSS is a sailor and adventurer.
He’s perhaps best known for his rescue of Frenchman and fellow competitor Raphaël Dinelli from mountainous Southern Ocean seas in the 1996 Vendee Globe, for which he was awarded the MBE by Her Majesty the Queen and the Legion d’Honneur by the French President.
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