North Atlantic Chase
When SMA skipper Paul Meilhat was seriously injured aboard his IMOCA 60 in an Atlantic storm during a qualification race for the Vendée Globe, his shore crew sprang into action to coordinate his successful evacuation. With Meilhat safely in a hospital bed, they turned their attention to retrieving his boat, which had set off on an impromptu and unmanned 1,100 nautical-mile passage through the very worst of the north Atlantic’s winter weather.
SMA project director Marcus Hutchinson tells the story of Meilhat’s horrific injury and subsequent rescue and explains how the runaway yacht was eventually tracked down and recovered.
Eight days into his first singlehanded transatlantic race in an IMOCA 60, Paul Meilhat was sitting comfortably in second place in the 3,500 nautical mile St. Barth to Port-la-Forêt Race, a leg of the Ocean Masters World Championship and more significantly for Meilhat, a qualifier for the 2016 Vendée Globe.
400 miles ahead of him, race leader Seb Josse, aboard the foil-assisted Gitana, had a clear performance edge over the older boats enabling him to stay in the fast moving weather systems just that little bit longer. As a result, Josse was steadily eking out a 40 mile margin every day.
700 miles behind Meilhat, the rest of the fleet - most of whom were also keen to qualify for the big race next Autumn - were scattered across a wide area of the North Atlantic. In spite of a major depression looming down on him, with just three or four days at sea remaining, Paul pushed on directly towards the finish line.
Part of qualifying for the Vendee Globe is demonstrating that you can deal with whatever weather is thrown at you and despite the 50 knots of wind and seven metre swells, everything was going well aboard SMA as Meilhat passed South of the Azores.
The boat was proving to mostly be controllable and, more importantly, seemed relatively easy to recover after the occasional broach. Following a particularly violent spinout, however, Meilhat noticed the lashing at the bottom of the J2 forestay - the yacht’s permanent forestay and one of three available forestays on a standard IMOCA - had come undone. The furled up headsail, attached only to the mast, was swinging about freely.
This was not a good scenario as it meant meant SMA’s mast was being held forward only by the half-height J3 forestay. Meilhat considered that he would have to remedy the problem as soon as possible by running some halyards forward and attaching the J1 forestay.
That was a task easier said than done when the boat was hurtling down waves and constantly taking solid green water over the decks. Paul slowed the boat down as much as possible and waited for a while to determine if it was going to be safe to go onto the foredeck. After twenty minutes he assessed that it would be OK and he clipped on his safety line and ventured forwards with the intention of attaching the J1 forestay.
All went well at first, until suddenly, the boat picked up a huge wave and began to accelerate on a long, hurtling surf that ended with the bow being engulfed in a deluge of fast moving water. Meilhat was washed helplessly back along the deck until his body slammed into the J3 furling drum. He didn’t know it at the time but the impact had broken five of his ribs and fractured his pelvis in five places.
Meilhat knew immediately that he was seriously injured, but as he tried to gather his thoughts, the boat broached again and before trying to make any other plans he had to... READ THE FULL STORY