‘I am sinking. This is not a joke. MAYDAY'
Yachting World|February 2021
KEVIN ESCOFFIER’S RESCUE FROM A LIFERAFT ADRIFT IN THE ROARING FORTIES WAS THE RESULT OF INCREDIBLE SEAMANSHIP. HELEN FRETTER SPOKE TO HIM, AND THE TEAM THAT CO-ORDINATED THE SEARCH

At 1345 (UTC) on Monday 30 November, on a grey and lumpy South Atlantic some 840 miles south-west of Cape Town, Kevin Escoffier was 3rd in the singlehanded Vendée Globe when his boat, the IMOCA 60 PRB, suddenly and catastrophically broke up. Escoffier had time only to send a three line Whatsapp message to his shore team before all communication with the boat was lost. It would be 11 hours before anyone on land heard from him again.

Before he had any indication anything was wrong, Escoffier was racing fast in 22-25 knot south-westerlies. He was around 20 miles behind 2nd placed LinkedOut, with Jean Le Cam in 4th around 25 miles behind.

While some skippers had been plagued by gear damage, PRB was in good shape. The only problem Escoffier had had to deal with was a valve failure in a foil well a couple of weeks previously, which he joked had turned his boat into ‘jacuzzi mode’ as water sloshed around inside. Escoffier fixed the valve and raced on, moving up to 3rd as he approached the Cape of Good Hope.

On the afternoon of 30 November, PRB was thundering south-east at 17-knot averages. “I had a very good 48 hours before the incident, I had good speed,” Escoffier told us from Le Cam’s IMOCA after his rescue. “We knew that we were going to get stronger winds and a worse sea state, so I decided to furl my fractional gennaker, and go for the J2. “The wind was quite quickly increasing from 25 to 30 knots with a sea state increasing to 5-5.5m. It was quite short waves, not a nice angle. Sometimes it was nice surf, but when you dropped off the surf – and I had one wave that we surfed at 30 knots – then you were quite fast. But I was ready, I had the J2 up and two reefs in the main. For 30 knots, two reefs with a J2 is even under powered, so for me everything was going well.”

Without warning, PRB snapped in two. “The boat folded in on itself in a wave at 27 knots,” Escoffier reported. “I heard a crack but honestly didn’t need the noise to understand. I looked at the bow, it was at 90°.

“Within seconds, there was water everywhere. The stern of the boat was underwater and the bow was pointing skyward. You’ve seen images of shipwrecks? It was like that, but worse. In four seconds the boat nosedived and the bow folded up. It was completely crazy.”

The waves PRB had been surfing on surged through the hull, flooding it instantly as the bow broke away forward of the mast bulkhead. “I saw smoke, the electronics were burning and everything was extinguished. The only reflex I had was to grab the phone to send this message,” he said.

Back in the French port of Les Sables d’Olonne, Vendée Globe race organisers got their first warning of a problem when PRB’s EPIRB was triggered. Assistant race director Hubert Lemonnier explained: “Right at the same time we got a message, and a call from the team confirming the distress.

“That’s the worst case scenario, when MRCC call and say we have an EPIRB alert. Because it means that the skipper had no time, and no means of communication to liaise with us.”

The race team could see that PRB was in serious trouble. “We tried to call him on different sat phones and there was no tone at all. Also, we had no position report. The tracker is plugged into the boat power and if the tracker is definitely off, that meant no power on the boat. All of those things together made us think that the situation was very bad.”

Almost immediately race control contacted Jean Le Cam, the closest skipper to PRB’s last known position around 20 miles away, and asked him to divert to assist.

Back on PRB, Escoffier was having to make split-second decisions. “My first decision was a good one, and it was to put on my survival suit, my ‘TPS’. That was the first thing I did, before I try and take my grab bag, and I think that was my best decision,” he recalled.

NO LINES OF COMMUNICATION

Escoffier then picked up the only accessible grab bag. “But it was the one with food and water, because the grab bag with the satellite phone and the VHF were already too deep in the water. It was under the step of the hatch and the water was already too high. Maybe I should have dived to grab it, but I did not know how long the boat will stay [floating] so I did not take that chance. That was the worst thing for me.”

PRB’s broken hull was rapidly awash in 3m waves. “It was becoming impossible for me to stay on the boat, I would not have been able to stay on the deck. For me the issue was: is it possible for an IMOCA to float when you don’t have the bow anymore, with just half of the hull? Because the keel was attached to the back of the boat where I was, so if you lose half of the stability of the boat, maybe the half-boat can sink?

“I had all of these engineer’s questions in my head – should I stay on the boat or go in the liferaft? The decision was not easy, and a wave helped me to decide because I was washed off the deck. I ended up in the water, with the liferaft not ‘popped’.”

Escoffier was able to inflate and climb into the liferaft but had no way of communicating. However, one more good habit helped his survival chances. Unlike many solo skippers, Escoffier wore a small personal AIS beacon tucked in a pocket.

“Because I come from crewed sailing I’ve always got one in my in my wet weather gear trouser pocket. I think it’s very important for every sailor to have that: it’s cheap, it’s small, works well and it’s very accurate. [Single-handed sailors] may not wear it, thinking there’s no point because any people will be too far away, and it’s not the case,” he emphasised.

The more accurate positioning of the personal AIS beacon at short range helped pinpoint Escoffier’s initial location. Two hours after getting the call to divert, Jean Le Cam arrived at PRB’s last known location (40°55’S, 9°18’E).

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