In the early afternoon of November 30, Kevin Escoffier was dashing through the Southern Ocean aboard his IMOCA 60, PRB, one of 33 skippers competing in the Vendée Globe nonstop solo around-the-world race. By any measure, things were going well. He was in third place, hot on the heels of second-place Thomas Ruyant (LinkedOut). It, therefore, came as shock to his team when a little over 800 miles southeast of Cape Town, South Africa, his EPIRB went off.
The boat had been cruising at 27 knots when it nosedived into a wave. Escoffier ducked down in the cockpit to avoid the surge. Crash! He arose to find the boat’s bow at a 90-degree angle to the deck. PRB had cracked in two just ahead of the mast bulkhead. In seconds, the boat was flooded with water.
Escoffier had time to send a single text message before his electronics were fried: I need assistance. I’m sinking. This is not a joke. MAYDAY.
Race management hailed the nearest skipper, fourth-place Jean Le Cam (Yes We Cam!). Le Cam immediately changed course, heading toward Escoffier’s last known position, but it took nearly two hours for him to get there. PRB was long gone by the time Le Cam arrived. But with the help of drift calculations from his shore team, he was soon able to locate Escoffier’s liferaft with Escoffier safely inside.
“Being in a raft in 35 knots of wind is not reassuring,” recalled Escoffier. “I was only reassured when I saw Jean... It was a real battlefield out on the water.”
Unfortunately, with two reefs in his main and over 30 knots of wind, the rescue would require a difficult maneuver that also took Le Cam away from the liferaft.
“I saw him,” an exhausted-looking Le Cam reported in a video call to his team a short while later. “I told him ‘I will be back, there was no need to rush things.’ I came back to the spot where I left him, but there was no one there.”
Several grueling tacks and jibes later, Escoffier was still nowhere to be found. By then, it was the middle of the night. “I told myself I would stay on standby, wait for daylight,” Le Cam later recalled.
For Le Cam, the scene must have felt eerily familiar. In 2009, in the same race, in the same barren stretch of ocean, he had also been searching for another boat, also called PRB—back then, though, it had been Le Cam in need of help. His boat VM Matériaux had rolled, and he’d been trapped inside for 16 hours. When he finally heard the voice of fellow competitor Vincent Riou hailing him, he thought at first he was imagining things. But no, Riou had sprinted 100 miles to rescue him. Though PRB’s mast was damaged in the process, the two skippers devised a jury rig together and made it safely to the Argentinian port of Ushuaia.
Meanwhile, back on land, Vendée Globe fans found themselves anxiously awaiting news of Escoffier. All that came, though, was the announcement that two more skippers—Yannick Bestaven (Maître Coq IV) and Boris Herrmann (Seaexplorer-Yacht Club De Monaco)—were being diverted. Speculation ran rampant. A common theme: they wouldn’t be sending more boats unless Le Cam was having trouble finding Escoffier.
An hour later, Sebastien Simon (Arkea Paprec) was rerouted as well.
As for Le Cam, he was now sailing with three reefs in his main and his emergency motor unsealed, as per race protocol. The waves were still so high it was impossible for him to pick up Escoffier’s AIS transmissions. Eventually, as he was standing by, it occurred to him that Escoffier’s light would be more easily seen in the dark, even if the liferaft itself was invisible. Resuming the search, Le Cam’s hunch paid off. “One moment I was on deck, I saw a flash. In fact, it was a reflection shining on a wave. The closer I got to the light, I saw it more and more,” Le Cam said.
After that came the challenge of getting Escoffier safely aboard Yes We Cam! The forecast called for calmer weather to come, but there were no guarantees. The waves were still 12ft high, and they were in waters notorious for being among the most perilous on Earth.
“Will you be back?” Escoffier shouted shortly after the two made contact.
Le Cam, though, was not going to let him out of his sight again. “No, we are doing this now!”
Le Cam scrambled to throw him a line. Escoffier was wearing a survival suit that made movement difficult. He was also stiff with cold from his 12 hours in the liferaft. But in the early hours of December 1, with Le Cam’s help, he climbed aboard Yes We Cam! at last.
The skippers hugged. Escoffier said, “I’ve spoiled your race, you were doing so well.”
“That doesn’t matter. Last time it was me,” Le Cam answered—a fitting epitaph to a rescue that speaks volumes not only about the camaraderie that exists between all mariners at sea but the spirit of the Vendée Globe itself.
A Maritime Demolition Derby
At press time, Kevin Escoffier was just one of a number of fleet leaders who’d suffered breakdowns in the 2020-21 Vendée Globe, an event that has turned out to be as much a demolition derby as a yacht race. On day one, Fabrice Amedeo (Newrest-Art et Fenetres), a race favorite, was forced to turn back to fix a broken headsail hook. On day two, it was Jérémie Beyou’s turn, when his Charal hit an unidentified floating object (UFO) that damaged his rudders and rudder control system, forcing him to return to the start as well. A few days after that, Nicolas Troussel (Corum L’Épargne), who’d been in a strong 7th position, lost the rig of his brand-new IMOCA in less than 15kts of wind. Then, another couple of weeks after that, Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss), who’d been in first for days and whose boat had been custom-built for the race, discovered major structural damage in his bow. Worse yet, no sooner had Thomson seemingly fixed the problem than he hit a UFO that wrecked one of his rudders, knocking him out of the race for good. And still, the bad luck continued. After rejoining the race following Escoffier’s rescue, Sebastien Simon (ArkeaPaprec) promptly hit a UFO, which damaged his starboard rudder. Similarly, Sam Davies (Initiatives Coeur) also hit a UFO, resulting in the cracking of one of the structural supports in her keel box. Both Simon and Davies reported taking on manageable amounts of water and headed back toward Cape Town, South Africa, to check out the damage. Assessments made, they were also forced to call it quits.
For the latest on the race, in which the leaders were expected to start finishing in late December, visit vendeeglobe.org.
Photos courtesy of Vendee Globe