The sailing community was breathing a collective sigh of relief on Tuesday morning after confirmation that Kevin Escoffier, skipper of PRB, one of the leading boats in this year’s Vendée Globe round-the-world race, has been rescued from his life raft some 550 miles south west of Cape Town by fellow solo sailor Jean Le Cam.
The news was confirmed by officials overnight following a dramatic rescue operation in the South Atlantic which lasted for several hours.
Escoffier, a 40 year-old from Saint Malo, was racing in third place, in 25-30 knot winds and heavy seas, when his boat nosedived into a wave on Monday afternoon. He sent a message to his shore team at 13.46 GMT telling them he had significant amounts of water coming into the boat. "I need assistance," he wrote. "I am sinking. This is not a joke."
Escoffier later said the boat literally "folded in two", giving him just minutes to grab his survival suit and take to his life raft.
PRB’s emergency distress beacon was automatically activated. The signal was transmitted to Cross Griz Nez which immediately alerted Vendée Globe race direction in Les Sables d’Olonne.
Le Cam, Escoffier’s nearest competitor, was then re-routed to the last position given by PRB when the beacon was triggered.
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The veteran 61-year-old, who is on his fifth Vendée Globe race and coincidentally was himself rescued in the 2008-09 edition by then PRB skipper, Vincent Riou, arrived at around 16.15 GMT and located Escoffier’s life raft, initially establishing visual and voice contact.
However, Le Cam then lost sight of the raft in the five-metre waves and winds gusting to 35 knots, and with night closing in was unable to establish radio contact or pick up the signal from the AIS.
Three other skippers — Yannick Bestaven (Maître CoQ IV), Sébastien Simon (Arkéa-Paprec) and Boris Herrmann (Seaexplorer-Yacht Club de Monaco) — were then asked to join in the rescue.
Thankfully, Le Cam was able to relocate Escoffier and effect the rescue operation at around 01.15 GMT on Tuesday.
Speaking on a video link on Tuesday morning a relieved Le Cam said, “I arrived, it was all good, I saw him. Kevin in his life raft.
"Because I had a good position I told him I will be back there was no need to rush things. I had just the main with two reefs in 30-32 knots with the rough seas it was not easy to manoeuvre. I came back to the spot where I left him but there was no one there.
“I went there (looking for him) five or six times which means I had to tack five or six times because of the mishaps that happened all the time, the sea state and so on, I ended up going backwards.”
“I told myself I would stay on standby and wait for daylight. Then I thought that in the dark it might be easier to see his light. One moment when I was on deck I saw a flash, but in fact it was a reflection that glinted off a wave.
"But the more I got closer to the light I saw it more and more. It is amazing because you switch from despair to an unreal moment in an instant.”
Le Cam added of the actual moment of rescue: “I put myself to windward of him. I saw Kevin. Kevin asked me ‘will you be back?’ I said, ‘No we are doing this now!’ Then at one point the boat was falling backwards too fast in reverse and he was just there, two metres off the stern, and thank goodness I had prepared the red life ring that is usually in the cockpit. I throw it to him, and he catches it.
“And then he managed to pull himself in to catch the transmission bar (rudder link arm). And that was it.”
An emotional Escoffier described the moment his boat literally folded from the bow. “You see the images of shipwrecks?” he said. “It was like that, but worse. In four seconds the boat nosedived, the bow folded at 90°. I put my head down in the cockpit, a wave was coming. I had time to send one text before the wave fried the electronics. It was completely crazy. It folded the boat in two. I’ve seen a lot before but this one…”
Asked whether he had been scared or worried during his ordeal Escoffier replied, “No. As soon as I had seen Jean I was sure I would be saved.”
All competitors involved in the operation will be able to return to the race after the recovery, with the hours taken during the rescue deducted from their overall time in the race.