Stève Ravussin talks for the first time about his dramatic capsize and rescue from the Orange Project 7/11/06

The Orange Project trimaran capsized last night at 0024 (French time) in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 600 miles north-west of the Azores. At 0945 this morning, the Russian tanker Okhta Bridge, which was making progress towards Stève after having received the distress signal emitted by the Norfolk (USA) MRCC. The rescue operation has been a tricky one, and Stève was in a state of shock, but he’s now safe and sound, en route towards the South of England where he should step ashore on 13 November. Having survived his capsize but also a particularly hazardous rescue operation, Ravussin said: “I’ve had three lives today”.

The usually lively and enthusiast Swiss skipper is clearly still in shock. His trimaran, Orange Project, flipped over last night in heavy conditions – 35 knots of wind and short but steep waves. After a forced technical pit stop in the Azores last week, he was free from any result-related pressure, and was as he confessed sailing conservatively, with two reefs in the main and the Solent, ballasts filled in order to help the boat remain flat. While he was on the foredeck, busy tying up his gennaker to the net, the autopilot suddenly failed and the trimaran started luffing? Stève ran to the cockpit, but another pilot failure made the boat bear away violently this time! Nose-diving was unavoidable, the transoms were soon up in the air, the masthead came crashing into the sea?

“The protection structure installed by Lalou Roucayrol (previous skipper of the boat, then named Banque Populaire) around the helmsman seat saved my life, Stève says. When the boat pitch-poled, I hung on to it, not knowing which way it would come down. The mast resistance prevented the total capsize for a moment, but eventually the boat ended up upside down. I found myself under the net. I was wearing my survival gear, which I had put on to shelter from the spray. I’m not a good swimmer, and I had to fight to keep my head out of the water. I saw my own death a first time? The crossbeam was on my back, and the swell, lifting the boat up, allowed me to breathe.”

Stève found enough strength to climb up on the upturned boat. He then was able to turn his distress beacon on, and the signal was caught by the Maritime Rescue Center Control of Norfolk, USA. Norfolk then contacted the Route du Rhum organisers, and alerted the ships that were sailing in the area. The Okhta Bridge tanker, which was the closest, changed course and came to the rescue. Ironically enough, this ship belongs to the Sovcomflot company, which was Stève’s sponsor last year in the Oops Cup.

Seeing the massive silhouette of a tanker getting dangerously closer surely is a scary experience? “The boat came 5 metres away from me,” Stève recounts. I was tangled up in a mess of ropes, and I did not understand how the crew had planned to get me out of this trap. They tried to throw lines at me from the bow – I was right under it, and it culminated at 20 metres above the sea! I made myself a kind of harness, and managed to catch their rope. It was connected to an automatic winch, and when the crew thought I was properly tied, they turned the winch on, and I was dragged along the hull. I had kept with me a pair of scissors, which I used to cut all the ropes that were still tying me to the trimaran? I screamed like never before, I thought my end was near?”

Stève is now safe and sound, in the hands of the Russian crew. “They’re incredibly kind and thoughtful. Physically, I’m fine. Mentally, I feel as if I’ve fired all my rounds, there’s not much left?”

The boat is now drifting far away from inhabited lands. The beacon still sends a signal, giving its position to the maritime authorities. For the moment, recovering what will soon be nothing but a wreck is out of the question. “I wanted this Route du Rhum, I was prepared for it, and so was my whole team. It turned into a nightmare”, adds Stève.

Orange, Stève’s sponsor sent this message earlier today: “We’re relieved to know that Stève is alive and well aboard the Russsian tanker that came to his rescue this morning. It’s been a cruel Route du Rhum for him, we’d like to share his disappointment and salute his courage. The whole Orange staff wishes to thank him for the determination and moral qualities he displayed during this race.”