Swiss sailor Bernard Stamm and his French crew mate Damien Guillou are lucky to be alive after having to swim for their lives when their IMOCA 60 Cheminées Poujoulat broke up and sank in a storm off the British coast last night.
Several attempts to winch them to safety failed due to the horrendous wind and sea conditions, but Stamm and Guillou were eventually able swim to a cargo ship just minutes before their fractured and dismasted boat finally sank.
The relieved duo are currently counting their blessings aboard the Norwegian ship which is bound for the Dutch port of Rotterdam.
Stamm and Guillou were on the final leg of a delivery trip back from Brazil after the Transat Jacques Vabre when they were overrun by a vicious weather front about 200 miles from the south west tip of the UK. Stamm had joined the boat in the Azores.
They had been tracking the storm’s approach and were already heavily reefed when winds up to 40 knots hit them from behind. Despite their best efforts to slow the boat down, a hard landing off one particularly huge wave badly cracked the hull. Shortly afterwards the mast fell backwards over the stern and the boat began to sink.
“We were sailing downwind just ahead of the front,” Stamm explained. “The wind was blowing at between 43 and 45 knots, but we were coping. We had prepared ourselves for this gale. We were already under storm sail with four reefs in the mainsail.
“In other words, we had the hand brake on, but crashing down on a wave the boat broke in two, just in front of the daggerboards. The mast didn’t come down immediately. We quickly closed all the watertight compartments and then the mast fell backwards. We quickly asked for help then organised our survival on board.”
When Stamm triggered his EPIRB safety beacon to alert the rescue services to their predicament the emergency signal was picked up by the British Coastguard who immediately alerted the French Maritime Rescue Centre at Cap Gris Nez that the French registered boat was in trouble.
Around an hour and a half later a French reconnaissance plane arrived in the area and made contact with the stricken yacht. Some four hours later an ATL2 marine patrol plane arrived on the scene to help coordinate a rescue.
The horrendous wind and wave conditions meant a Royal Naval Sea King helicopter rescue crew who had been scrambled from their base in Culdrose in Cornwall were unable to get the two sailors off the boat despite multiple attempts to winch them to safety.
Meanwhile however, Falmouth Coastguard had requested help from the Norwegian cargo ship Star Isfjord which diverted to the sinking yacht, arriving at around 0730 hours the following morning. With time perilously close to running out, Stamm and Guillou finally were grab lines thrown from the ship and swim to the ship’s cargo net. Just minutes later Cheminées Poujoulat sank beneath the waves.
Stamm said the two efforts by the helicopter crew to winch them out of their liferaft had severely sapped the pair’s energy.
“They asked us to put the raft in the water so that a diver could pick us up,” he said. “We did that, but Damien and I just couldn’t get away from the boat. It was really dangerous, as we kept banging into the broken bow. In the end, we had to get back on board Cheminées Poujoulat leaving most of our water, survival kit, phone, rockets on the life raft. In other words, we had played our best cards.” “The rescue team suggested we swim across to to try to pick us up directly in the water,” Stamm went on. “Unfortunately that didn’t work either. Worse still, I found it really tough getting back aboard the boat. So for me it was a huge blow.”
The cargo ship’s Filipino crew threw down lines to the IMOCA 60 as Stamm and Guillou struggled to keep their footing on the viciously pitching deck.
“We got thrown across the top of the coach roof,” Stamm recounted. “Damien came to a standstill, but I was thrown 80 metres into the water, sometimes going under, until I managed to grab the line.
“Damien was swimming alongside the cargo ship but, thanks to a lifebuoy around him, also managed to catch the line and get out of there.”
As the exhausted duo dragged themselves up the cargo net to safety, their yacht had all but disappeared from sight.
“It was really close,” Stamm confirmed. “The seas were high and Cheminées Poujoulat at that point was almost entirely under the water. There was just a bit of the stern section sticking out with the bow hanging in front of the stays. It was really tough seeing her like that.”
Stamm and Guillou were on the last leg of a delivery trip back from the finish of the Transat Jacques Vabre race in which Stamm and French crewmate Philippe Legros had finished in fourth place.
This is not the first time Stamm has been rescued from this boat.
In 2011, he and Jean Francois Cuzon had to be evacuated by air after being holed during that year’s edition of the TJV race.