Australian Navy hurrying to rescue of seriously injured solo sailor - shades of a heroic mission and previous controversy, reports Elaine Bunting

A Royal Australian Navy frigate will leave Perth this evening on an urgent task to rescue French solo skipper Yann Elies, who is seriously injured approximately 800 miles south of Australia.

Elies was sailing his IMOCA 60 Generali on the single-handed Vendée Globe race and was changing headsails today and bracing himself on the pulpit of the yacht when the boat surfed into a wave ahead, buried her bow and came to a sudden halt. The deceleration or impact caused Elies’s thigh bone to fracture.

The help of the Royal Australian Navy was requested by MRCC Canberra after being alerted by the Vendée Globe race organisation. An Adelaide class frigate, which carries two Seahawk helicopters that can be used for air evacuation will leave Perth at 1950GMT. It is estimated that it will take around 48 hours to reach Generali’s position.

After his accident this morning, the 34-year-old Breton skipper crawled back along the deck and phoned the Vendée Globe race organisation to ask for medical assistance. Together with the race’s doctor, Jean-Yves Chauve, they were able to diagnose a broken femur and Elies was prescribed morphine to alleviate the pain.

Marc Guillemot on Safran, who is the nearest competitor approximately 100 miles away, is being diverted. He should be able to close reach to Elies’s position in around 12 hours and is being asked to standby for moral support. It is doubtful he will be able to do anything practical for Elies or the disabled boat, as there are winds of around 30 knots in this area currently, with seas of 6m-plus.

Sam Davies, some 500 miles behind, is also being asked to sail to Elies’s position. She is about a day-and-a-half away and could be on station before the Navy frigate arrives.

The last time the Royal Australian Navy came to the rescue of the race was in early January 1997, when Thierry Dubois and Tony Bullimore were rescued from their upturned boats. The race route in those years was further south, and the rescue took place approximately 1,400 miles south of Australia.

It was the public outcry at the cost of this rescue, and the discussions that followed with the Australian rescue services, that was largely responsible for the positioning of waypoints and security gates on every subsequent major round the world race.

By shaping a route further north than in the past, these waypoints slightly minimise the dangers of encountering ice (though, as competitors observe, it is now to be found much further north), but importantly it brings racers within range of rescue services.