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North Atlantic Chase

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 grit his teeth against the agonising pain as he fought to get her back on her feet.

By the time the yacht was eventually back upright, shock had began to set in and Meilhat’s was in serious pain. He contacted his shore team, who advised him to gybe immediately onto port and head towards the leeward end of the Azores island Sao Miguel, about 40 miles away. They told him to try to get into the lee of the island and stay there for as long as it would take for help to come. 

Meilhat made it to this relatively small area of shelter from the wind and waves, where he started the engine, dropped the sails as best he could and tried to remain on station. The plan was working nicely until the J2 sheet that had gone under the boat caught around the propeller, ripped the P-bracket clean off the bottom of the boat and bent the titanium prop shaft through 45 degrees in the process. 

Now without an engine, the SMA yacht began to drift out from the lee of the island and back into the full force of the screaming wind and rolling seas. Meilhat’s physical condition was deteriorating fast and the decision was made to try to evacuate him as quickly as possible. However, in the end, conditions were so bad that this exercise took another 18 hours to achieve.

It was too windy to launch a helicopter and anyway, with the incapacitated Meilhat down inside the boat, there was no chance of airlifting him from a pitching and yawing yacht that still had its mast in place. The next day, despite the still hideous weather conditions, a Portuguese Navy patrol boat, permanently on station in the islands, managed to get one of its RIBs in the water. The rescue crew powered the RIB’s bow over SMA open transom and on to her aft deck so that one of the crew could jump aboard and extract the suffering Meilhat from down below. 

The evacuation drama was far from over however, as the complex recovery procedure to get the RIB back on board the patrol boat in such horrendous conditions concluded with the RIB upside down with Meilhat and his two rescuers in the ocean. It took another 20 minutes for a helicopter to recover them all. Happily, a couple of hours later, Paul was in a hospital bed on the tiny Azores island of Terceira, being wonderfully looked after by a specialist team of trauma care doctors and nurses.

With the SMA skipper successfully recovered and out of harm’s way, attention now turned to retrieving the team’s abandoned and drifting yacht. The SMA shore crew had arrived in Punta Delgada on Sao Miguel with the intention of chartering a suitable vessel for a recovery mission. But the weather was bad, really bad. Fishing boats were returning to port, the harbour’s own tugs were not authorised to head out in seas of over four metres and the forecasts were not painting an optimistic picture for the days ahead.

However, where there is a will there is a way and after 36 hours and a great deal of negotiation later, a deal was done and the SMA shore crew boarded the only vessel willing to put to sea, a 67-metre ocean-going salvage tug. 

The team’s initial plan had been to rendezvous with the yacht the following morning, put four sailors aboard by RIB and then sail SMA to France. In the end though, it took much longer to catch up with the yacht which – even under bare poles with the helm tied to leeward - was still making way at between three and six knots, heading due north. 

Once the tug reached the yacht it immediately became clear why she was going so fast.  The top two battens of a modern IMOCA 60 mainsail have to be physically disconnected from their mast track cars to properly stow the mainsail; something the badly injured Meilhat had understandably been unable to manage. Somehow, the wind had blown the mainsail a few metres back up the mast and that was enough for the boat to do what good sailing boats are supposed to do, sail forwards as quickly as she could. 

An inspection of the yacht from on board the tug suggested that she was still in pretty good shape and floating to her marks. Frustratingly, the weather and sea state were not considered safe for putting a RIB in the water and so - very reluctantly - the salvage tug turned around and headed back to port. 

Putting their first failed attempt behind them, the shore crew set about formulating their next plan. Fortunately the yacht’s position could be tracked via the race tracker and they watched as the storms that prevailed in the North Atlantic during the last two weeks of December continued to drive her north at an amazing average speed – for an unmanned yacht anyway – of 80 miles per day. 

The team relocated themselves to La Coruña in northern Spain for a second attempt using another chartered tug. However, with worsening forecasts and the prospect of motoring 700 miles upwind through the North Atlantic during the winter Solstice against 10 metre swells and 50 to 70 knots of wind, the mission quickly became too risky and the second attempt was also abandoned.

Meanwhile, a third rescue attempt using a tough 50-foot aluminium cruising yacht called the Galea was being prepared from the French port of Le Crouesty in southern Brittany. On Christmas Eve a highly competent crew led by top Figaro sailor, Adrian Hardy, headed out into the wintery wilds of the North Atlantic. Two days later however, with 80 knot winds and colossal seas from the remnants of a massive storm system codenamed Desmond headed directly their way, Hardy and his crew wisely threw in the towel and returned to port.

Often in life there are times to be in a hurry and there are times to be patient and wait for the situation to evolve. Having now followed its position for more than 10 days, the SMA shore team were becoming skilled at predicting where their yacht would be up to two or three days ahead. As their confidence in their predictions grew, they recognised that, rather than trying to aim at a moving target 700 miles away straight upwind, if they bided their time, it should eventually become viable to approach the boat downwind from the north.

Accordingly, Hardy and a reinforced team on the Galea and the SMA shore team all repositioned themselves to the south west tip of Ireland and waited for the right moment to attempt a rendezvous. On January 3 the Galea headed out from the County Cork village of Crookhaven, just opposite the Fastnet Rock. At the same time, the SMA shore team left from Fenit on the north Kerry coast, aboard an Irish salvage tug called the Ocean Bank. 

The Galea crew were the first to rendezvous with the yacht, tracking her down some 180 miles west of Ireland’s Mizen Head. After two and a half weeks alone in the Atlantic and having travelled more than a thousand miles in some of the worst winter weather on record, the yacht was looking a little sorry for herself. On the plus side, however she was still afloat and the rig was still up, making all of the effort to find her seem worthwhile.  

Just before sunset, Hardy successfully managed to get on board via a small rubber boat trailed behind the Galea. The conditions wouldn’t allow any more activity that night so Hardy had to spend an uncomfortable night in the bow of the partially sunk IMOCA 60. After some remarkable seamanship the following morning, another person, a high volume water pump and several other items of specialist equipment were all transferred aboard SMA. Eight hours of hard work later, the pump had done it’s job and SMA was once again floating to her marks.

Accompanied by the Ocean Bank and Galea, Hardy set a storm jib sideways off the bowsprit and set off at six knots towards Ireland. Eventually, three and half weeks after Meilhat had made his fateful visit to the foredeck close to the Azores, the SMA yacht was safely attached to a mooring buoy in Crookhaven.

Two days later, the boat was towed to Kinsale - the nearest port on the Irish coast with a marina pontoon in more than five metres of water - where she was emptied of equipment and given a much needed clean. The fuel tank had burst at some stage and 80 litres of diesel, along with several tonnes of sea water had contaminated everything inside. 

The stormy winter weather continued for the next few weeks and it wasn’t until late January that SMA could finally leave Irish waters and cover the last 350 miles back to base at Port-la-Forêt. 

Check out Marcus Hutchinson's images from the rescue mission:

Currently, she is in the Mer Agitée workshop in Port-la-Forêt, undergoing a total refit. There is a significant amount of composite work to be done to repair a delaminated deck and starboard topsides as well as fixing a multitude of other scratches, bumps and bruises. 

All the yacht’s systems have been systematically overhauled. Every piece of wire, length of pipe, hose, connector box - and essentially any other part that doesn’t like sea water - has been removed and replaced. 

I’m pleased to report the boat is scheduled to be back in the water in April, ready to tackle the Plymouth to New York transatlantic race in May. The even better news is that Paul Meilhat will be at the helm. By then the SMA skipper will have spent several months working unremittingly with the physios and orthopaedic specialists at the Kerpape Rehabilitation Centre in Brittany. 

So look out for the indefatigable SMA IMOCA 60 team, back on the oceans again soon!

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