Bernard Stamm says the bow of his 60ft yacht tore off and jack-knifed

Safe on shore after a miraculous rescue from his sinking IMOCA 60 Cheminées Poujoulat west of Ushant on Christmas Eve, Swiss skipper Bernard Stamm has been explaining how the boat sank after the whole front half of the boat tore away.

In an interview with Le Figaro, he elaborated on his earlier account of the boat breaking just behind the daggerboards. Shockingly, he says that the boat came off a wave and the bow ripped away and fractured to “45 degrees to the axis of the boat.”

Stamm and his co-skipper, well-known French Figaro sailor Damien Guillou, were extremely lucky to survive the accident and subsequent hair-raising rescue by a cargo ship. As our earlier news report details, several unsuccessful attempts were made to airlift them and then to drop additional liferafts. During the manoeuvres to get aboard the cargo ship, the boat and crew were nearly crushed against it in huge seas, and Stamm and Guillou finally had to swim to get aboard.

Now that the two are safe on land, questions are being asked. The first is why Stamm persisted on sailing into the storm on his delivery back to France from the Azores. “Why did a sailor of Stamm’s calibre put himself in harm’s way with such a well forecast storm?” tweeted Didier Ravon, editor of French sailing magazine Voiles et Voiliers.

But Stamm insists that he was not in exceptional conditions considering what these boats are built for and has often raced harder in far worse. That point is very relevant because while the UK and France took an exceptional battering last week it is for exactly these type of conditions – and occasionally even harsher – that we follow races such as the Vendée Globe.

Cheminées Poujoulat was about 180 miles from Brest to 200 miles from the south-western tip of the UK at the time. Stamm explains: “The sea was formed and regular, and we were prepared to deal with this gale. We were under storm jib and had four reefs in the mainsail. Everything was under control, the boat was doing 12-13 knots on surfs and behaving very well. I was at the chart table with my co-skipper Damien Guillou when, in a wave, we heard a huge crack: the yacht had broken in two.

“Damien immediately went on deck shouting ‘The mast has come down,’ but he immediately saw that it was the boat that was broken. The bow was at 45 degrees to the axis of the boat. I immediately closed the watertight bulkheads. Moments later, the mast fell and we set off the EPIRB because we had to leave the boat.”

Asked about his decision to carry on sailing towards France despite the forecast storm, Stamm commented: “Certainly there was a lot of wind, but we went on knowingly. We took a northerly route on port tack from the Azores and gybed to the west on Sunday morning at 2200 and sailed towards Brest.

“Throughout this phase we sailed slowly at 60 per cent of our polars in order to let the worst of the storm pass ahead. On Sunday, the wind was still strong enough but eased to 35-37 knots and there was even a short time with 27 knots. We had a clear outline of the situation and what was coming behind.

“We knew we would have three or four hours of very strong winds, but these boats are built for that. We regularly had 45-50 knots. You don’t prepare for sailing round the world sailing by sailing in Brittany in 15 knots of wind. Before the accident, we never felt the need to lie ahull, which is a possibility in excessive conditions. The boat behaved well. The front had passed.

“The strongest wind had passed. It is important that people understand that we didn’t have 75 knots, like they had on shore. Later, when we were being rescued, the wind was stronger, but we would never had had that if we’d continued on our way.”

Acknowledging his reputation as a hell-for-leather racer who never backs off, Stamm says that this played no part here. “I have a reputation of being a daredevil, and that sticks to me, but it’s not that at all. I’m not a kamikaze. We do things thoughtfully. The problem is the boat, which broke in two. It should be designed to face rough seas.”

What happened to Cheminées Poujoulat sounds like a catastrophic structural failure of his Juan Kouyoumdjian-designed boat around the area of maximum loading, where the canting keel, daggerboards and mast compression loads are carried. The latest generation of IMOCA 60s are lighter than earlier counterparts – was that a factor?


Stamm was also taken off the same boat in the Transat Jacques Vabre race in 2011 when the boat was holed just above the waterline near the starboard shrouds following a collision with an unidentified object. With the boat now sunk and lost, it could be near impossible to identify what caused the failure this time.

“One thing is certain: while sailing underpowered, as we were, Cheminées Poujoulat could not have been pushed too hard, and that’s what is amazing,” Stamm said. “When you’re racing hard, then yes it’s hard on our boats. But we were sailing completely safely and we weren’t pushing. It is incomprehensible.

“I need to understand why my boat broke in two like that. If the same accident were to happen in the Southern Ocean, it could be fatal. I need to understand how the failure happened and and only then can I think of what comes next.”

Photos courtesy of Thierry Martinez.