Around the world yachtsman saved by a glimmer of light

Local SFT contributor Stephen Praetorius himself an accomlished yachtsman recounts the harrowing tale of a miraculous rescue of around the world yachtsman Kevin Escofficier 800 nautical miles south of Cape Town yesterday.

Stephen writes ….

Offshore sailing is not for everyone. Solo offshore sailing even less so. Solo offshore racing however is reserved for a rare breed of individuals. An elite group of passionate men and women are inexplicably drawn to this incredibly dangerous sport.

To race around the world …. alone …. think about that for second. To be at the mercy of Mother nature for up to 3 months …. alone. To round three of the most dangerous Capes in the world. To be battered by the Southern ocean. To barely sleep. To eat freeze dried food. To constantly battle the elements. To be damp. To be alone. To know your life is in danger. Who on earth would want to do such a thing?! Enter the Vendee Globe, probably the most iconic endurance race on the planet!

On the evening of 30 Nov 2020 the fleet were about 800 nautical miles (1500km) south of Cape Town in a proper depression. Did anybody notice how the wind was pumping here on Tuesday? Well can you imagine what it was like out there? I’ll answer that one for you ….. You can’t. 6m ocean swells and 40 plus knots of wind in those latitudes must be absolutely terrifying. But for these solo yachties, living on the edge, this is what they are hard wired to handle. Until of course something goes horribly wrong …..

For one solo competitor Kevin Escoffier, a nightmare was about to unfold. When the wind is blowing 40 knots combined with a 6m sea it is nigh impossible to see what may be submerged directly in your path. (Especially when your boat is doing 25knots itself!) We may never know what he hit but whatever it was snapped his boat in half! He heard an almighty bang, looked up and the bow of the boat was at 90 degrees to the rest of it. It took 3 seconds for the boat to completely fill with water. He barely had enough time to get into his neoprene immersion suit and grab the EPIRB (emergency position indicator radio beacon) before his boat completely sunk. His mayday call was literally “I need help” ….. then nothing. Luckily the life-rafts are on hydrostatic releases and self inflate when the yacht goes down. His worked …. thank God, and he managed to get inside it.

Imagine being at Race HQ back in France, hearing the call and seeing the blip of the activated EPIRB on the screen. That twinge of the dreaded adrenaline knowing that one of the competitors is in grave danger, perhaps injured (or worse) in the southern ocean. Those moments call for level heads. The race director immediately contacted the closest competitor, Jean Le Cam (a 60 year old French legend of the sport) and re-directed him towards the GPS position that the EPIRB was emitting. I don’t doubt for a minute that there would have been explicative’s uttered from Le Cam (there goes his race too) but in moments such as these the race no longer counts. Le Cam (his boat aptly named ‘Yes we Cam’) actually got there before nightfall and spotted the life-raft. Sadly, due to hectic sea conditions and being unable to start his engine couldn’t get close enough to pull off the rescue. Then he lost sight of Escoffier …. and it got dark.

I wonder what was going through the head of Kevin Escoffier as he sat in that life-raft getting smashed about in the pitch dark. Thinking of his family no doubt, a significant improvement regarding his relationship with God perhaps? Despair? Gratitude? Hope? Who knows …. His rescuer was nowhere in sight. I bet you he covered a LOT of ground as he awaited his fate….

Le Cam never left the area and by some miracle at around 2am spotted the tiniest of lights on the water. Quite phenomenal considering the state of the ocean. This time around there was no losing sight and somehow (in the pitch black depths of the southern ocean) managed to fling a life line across to Esocoffier! As the adrenaline spiked, Escoffier abandoned his life-raft, pulled himself towards Le Cams boat and managed to clamber aboard!

Wow …. What a story! The wind here is still pumping outside. Its actually started to rain .… horizontally! The swell is picking up by the minute. Maybe I’ll go for a surf just to get a little taste of the same storm that spared this man’s life. When I’m out there I’ll gaze southward and wish them all a safe passage through the Southern Ocean.