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Polar yacht crew rescued - three knock-downs in Force 12

by Robert Booth, Guardian/Sail-World Cruising on 6 May 2009
Fleur rescue - photo by Overseas Yellowstone SW
The British crew of a 'carbon neutral' polar expedition sailing across the North Atlantic have been rescued by an oil tanker after their yacht was caught in a Force 12 (64kts+) storm and knocked down three times in towering north Atlantic swells.

The three members of the Carbon Neutral Expedition, two of whom were planning to cross the Greenland ice cap as part of a nationwide educational initiative, were hauled to safety this week 400 miles off the coast of Ireland. They are now on their way to Portland, Maine, with the tanker, where they are due to arrive later in the week.

Raoul Surcouf, 40, a landscape gardener from Jersey, and Richard Spink, 31, a physiotherapist from Bristol, had set up the expedition to show how journeys to some of the most remote places on the planet can be undertaken with minimal impact on the environment.

Their relief was tinged with a sense of irony as the rescue craft sent by Falmouth coastguard was the Overseas Yellowstone, a 113,000-tonne oil tanker.

Their 40ft cutter, Fleur, had been knocked down three times and was overwhelmed by towering waves as the skipper, Ben Stoddart, tried to slow it down amid 60-knot gusts.

The ordeal began on Friday morning. Stoddart deployed the sea anchor but it was lost when a wave came over the stern, snapping the rope. The first of the three knockdowns happened in the early hours, causing the failure of the navigation instruments and structural damage inside and out. Water was flooding into the boat as waves broke over it.

The crew alerted Falmouth coastguard at 5am, and at 9.30am the skipper suffered a blow to the head when the boat was flipped upside down. There was further damage to the boat's external structure, the main electricity generator was torn loose and both solar panels were destroyed.


After the third knockdown in seven hours, coastguards were asked to mount a rescue and the crew huddled together in the front cabin, which was least damaged by flooding, and awaited rescue, which came at 7.20pm.

The bad weather began much earlier and Jess Tombs, a spokeswoman for the expedition, said Spink had described the ordeal as '36 hours of hell'.

'They are extremely relieved to just be alive,' said Tombs, who spoke to the crew by phone on board the tanker. 'Disappointment that the expedition hasn't worked has not kicked in yet.'

In a statement from the tanker after the rescue, Spink said: 'We regret to inform you that the CNE Greenland expedition 2009 has been abandoned due to repeated, irreparable storm damage to our sailing vessel Fleur; in the north Atlantic we experienced some of the harshest conditions known, over a period of 36 hours, with winds gusting hurricane force 12. At 10.00hrs on 1st May 2009 the decision was made that the risk to our own personal safety was too great to continue and a rescue was co-ordinated with Falmouth coastguard.

'The team are now safely and ironically aboard the oil tanker Overseas Yellowstone. The ship's captain and crew are being fantastic hosts. We are due to be in port in Portland Maine USA towards the end of next week. The


CNE team would like to give heartfelt thanks to Falmouth and Irish coastguards for their professionalism in the rescue operation.'

Even the rescue did not run smoothly. Spink was first off the Fleur, jumping across to a rope ladder dropped from the tanker, and he was followed by Surcouf. Stoddart, who was last to leave, fell back into the sea and had to be hauled aboard manually by five men on the tanker deck. It is thought he may have broken some ribs in the fall.

It is a bitter disappointment for the expedition, which had been long in the planning. The expedition set sail on April 19 for the planned 10 week expedition.

The expedition had a different approach from normal polar expeditions. Nearly all trans-Greenland expeditions involve flying to Greenland with helicopter drop offs to traverse the ice cap. Using the yacht for transport made this journey very different. The ice cap team- Richard and Raoul were skippered by Ben as they sailed across the North Atlantic from Plymouth to Nuuk. This 2000 mile, 18 day crossing was to be a harsh preparation for their arrival in Nuuk, but, as it has turned out, has crippled the expedition before the 'main event' had even started.

......................................................

Letter from Reader:
>
> Sender: Steve Caneen
>
> Message: The rig looks intact and the decks are not awash. Why abandon ship? No life raft aboard? No mention of serious crew injury. I'm confused and I hope there will be more information forthcoming.
>

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