Kevin Escoffier’s Vendée Globe rescue from a liferaft adrift in the Roaring Forties was the result of incredible seamanship. Helen Fretter spoke to him, and the team that co-ordinated the search
“I AM SINKING. THIS IS NOT A JOKE. MAYDAY”
At 1345 (UTC) on Monday 30 November, on a grey and lumpy South Atlantic some 840 miles south-west of Cape Town, Kevin Escoffier was 3rd in the single-handed Vendée Globe when his boat, the IMOCA 60 PRB, suddenly and catastrophically broke up. Escoffier had time only to send a three line Whatsapp message to his shore team before all communication with the boat was lost. It would be 11 hours before anyone on land heard from him again. This is the story of his stunning Vendée rescue.
Before he had any indication anything was wrong, Escoffier was racing fast in 22-25 knot south-westerlies. He was around 20 miles behind 2nd placed LinkedOut, with Jean Le Cam in 4th around 25 miles behind.
While some skippers had been plagued by gear damage, PRB was in good shape. The only problem Escoffier had had to deal with was a valve failure in a foil well a couple of weeks previously, which he joked had turned his boat into ‘jacuzzi mode’ as water sloshed around inside. Escoffier fixed the valve and raced on, moving up to 3rd as he approached the Cape of Good Hope.
On the afternoon of 30 November, PRB was thundering south-east at 17 knot averages. “I had a very good 48 hours before the incident, I had good speed,” Escoffier told us from Le Cam’s IMOCA after his rescue.
“We knew that we were going to get stronger winds and a worse sea state, so I decided to furl my fractional gennaker, and go for the J2.
“The wind was quite quickly increasing from 25 to 30 knots with a sea state increasing to 5-5.5m. It was quite short waves, not a nice angle. Sometimes it was nice surf, but when you dropped off the surf – and I had one wave that we surfed at 30 knots – then you were quite fast.
“But I was ready, I had the J2 up and two reefs in the main. For 30 knots, two reefs with a J2 is even under powered, so for me everything was going well.”
Without warning, PRB snapped in two. “The boat folded in on itself in a wave at 27 knots,” Escoffier reported. “I heard a crack but honestly didn’t need the noise to understand. I looked at the bow, it was at 90°.
“Within seconds, there was water everywhere. The stern of the boat was underwater and the bow was pointing skyward. You’ve seen images of shipwrecks? It was like that, but worse. In four seconds the boat nosedived and the bow folded up. It was completely crazy.”
The waves PRB had been surfing on surged through the hull, flooding it instantly as the bow broke away forward of the mast bulkhead. “I saw smoke, the electronics were burning and everything was extinguished. The only reflex I had was to grab the phone to send this message,” he said.
Back in the French port of Les Sables d’Olonne, Vendée Globe race organisers got their first warning of a problem when PRB’s EPIRB was triggered. Assistant race director Hubert Lemonnier explained: “Right at the same time we got a message, and a call from the team confirming the distress.
“That’s the worst case scenario, when MRCC call and say we have an EPIRB alert. Because it means that the skipper had no time, and no means of communication to liaise with us.”
The race team could see that PRB was in serious trouble. “We tried to call him on different sat phones and there was no tone at all. Also, we had no position report. The tracker is plugged into the boat power and if the tracker is definitely off, that meant no power on the boat. All of those things together made us think that the situation was very bad.”
Almost immediately race control contacted Jean Le Cam, the closest skipper to PRB’s last known position around 20 miles away, and asked him to divert to assist.
Back on PRB, Escoffier was having to make split-second decisions. “My first decision was a good one, and it was to put on my survival suit, my ‘TPS’. That was the first thing I did, before I try and take my grab bag, and I think that was my best decision,” he recalled.
No lines of communication
Escoffier then picked up the only accessible grab bag. “But it was the one with food and water, because the grab bag with the satellite phone and the VHF were already too deep in the water. It was under the step of the hatch and the water was already too high. Maybe I should have dived to grab it, but I did not know how long the boat will stay [floating] so I did not take that chance. That was the worst thing for me.”
PRB’s broken hull was rapidly awash in 3m waves. “It was becoming impossible for me to stay on the boat, I would not have been able to stay on the deck.
“For me the issue was: is it possible for an IMOCA to float when you don’t have the bow anymore, with just half of the hull? Because the keel was attached to the back of the boat where I was, so if you lose half of the stability of the boat, maybe the half-boat can sink?
“I had all of these engineer’s questions in my head – should I stay on the boat or go in the liferaft? The decision was not easy, and a wave helped me to decide because I was washed off the deck. I ended up in the water, with the liferaft not ‘popped’.”
Escoffier was able to inflate and climb into the liferaft, but had no way of communicating. However, one more good habit helped his survival chances. Unlike many solo skippers, Escoffier wore a small personal AIS beacon tucked in a pocket.
“Because I come from crewed sailing I’ve always got one in my in my wet weather gear trouser pocket. I think it’s very important for every sailor to have that: it’s cheap, it’s small, works well and it’s very accurate.
“[Single-handed sailors] may not wear it, thinking there’s no point because any people will be too far away, and it’s not the case,” he emphasised.
Vendée rescue begins
The more accurate positioning of the personal AIS beacon at short range helped pinpoint Escoffier’s initial location.
Two hours after getting the call to divert, Jean Le Cam arrived at PRB’s last known location (40°55’S, 9°18’E).
“The sea was very rough. He was going on the last position report, and when he got right next to the boat position, he saw a MOB alert on his radar on his Adrena, so the personal AIS was transmitting,” explained Lemonnier. “He headed to that point, slowly, reducing speed as much as he could, and then went outside – we had him on Skype at the time – and when he came back inside the boat he told us, ‘I just saw Kevin. He’s in his liferaft.’
However, while Le Cam had quickly arrived at Escoffier’s position, his boat was not set up for a mid-ocean rescue. Before attempting to pick up Escoffier, he had to unseal and start his engine, and put in another reef. By the time Le Cam had readied his boat and returned to Escoffier’s position, he could not see the raft or the AIS beacon position (which may have been due to the rough sea state). After re-crossing his path repeatedly in a desperate search, Le Cam was exhausted and starting to get disorientated.
“He went six or seven times passing around. He came back after and said, ‘I can’t find him again. I don’t know where he is. I’ve been turning around. I lost track of everything. I can’t even remember myself where I am.’”
Le Cam needed to rest. With darkness approaching and other IMOCAs rapidly passing PRB’s position, race control requested Boris Herrmann (SeaExplorer), Yannick Bestaven (Maître CoQ) and Sebastien Simon (Arkea Paprec) divert to the scene. The skippers were set up on a Whatsapp group with their team managers and race control.
The idea of solo skippers using an instant messaging service in the remotest oceans would have seemed extraordinary just a couple of years ago, but the IMOCAs are now running a communications package called Thales Vesselink on Iridium’s Certus platform which offers an ‘always-on’ connection.
Besides enabling faster weather downloads and video uploads, it has meant the skippers can chat as they race. It allowed Escoffier to send his SOS message using a standard mobile phone connected to PRB’s wifi, and the race office in France to video call Jean Le Cam by Skype for the entire duration of the rescue.
Having summoned a search and rescue party, race organisers now had to work out where to send them, calculating how far Escoffier’s liferaft could have drifted and mapping out a search area.
“We were using two main things to identify the point of entry. That was the wreck of the boat, and the MOB AIS where Jean saw Kevin.
“Then Christian Dumard, our weather provider, built a polygon of drift. That was basically a triangle with a plus-3, plus-6, plus-9 and plus-12 hours. That gave us the first rough idea where the liferaft could drift. Then French MRCC have their own calculations system as well, along with Meteo France.”
Within 45 minutes of the request from Vendée Globe HQ, French MRCC came back with two files – a ‘worst case scenario’ based on a light raft that would drift rapidly, and a smaller search area based on a heavier raft with a drogue anchor. At the time, Lemonnier says, they did not know what type of raft Escoffier was in. The different options were overlaid, and largely agreed. However, the potential search area was widening rapidly.
“It was quite big, but actually we thought it was bigger than it was in reality. So we were expecting a distance of around 14 nautical miles north of the last MOB AIS position. In the end, he was found very much closer.”
The three skippers were each allocated a zone depending on which point of the triangle they would arrive at, and given precise instructions of how to search their areas: sailing east-west, as slowly as they could, to cover an area of 7.5 nautical miles of longitude, and 0.4 nautical miles latitude. All three were short-tacking repeatedly, with three reefs in the main, every tack taking around 20 minutes.
Sebastien Simon was sent to an EPIRB position report that, while not aligning with where they thought Escoffier could be, the race team did not want to ignore. Simon found no raft, but suspected he saw a flashlight. Le Cam was sent to another position, which seemed to line up with the drift prediction track, but yet again the black seas were empty.
The trackers on all four rescue skippers’ boats had been set to issue two minutes position updates, so the race team could see Le Cam was in position. Just after 0100 he went on deck, shouting and searching in the pitch dark, while the race team waited. “We didn’t know what was happening. And 15 minutes later, he came back into the boat and just right behind him, there was Kevin.”
In the end, Escoffier’s recovery from the liferaft was swift. “I saw a flash, but in fact it was a reflection that glinted off a wave,” Le Cam reported. “But the more I got closer to the light I saw it more and more. It is amazing because you switch from despair to an unreal moment in an instant.”
“I put myself to windward of him. Kevin asked me ‘Will you be back?’ I said, ‘No we are doing this now!’ Then at one point the boat was falling backwards too fast in reverse and he was just there, two metres off the stern. Thank goodness I had prepared the red life ring that is usually in the cockpit. I threw it to him, and he caught it… and then he managed to pull himself in to catch the rudder link bar. And that was it.”
Why did PRB break up?
While Escoffier’s rescue is close to miraculous, it has raised serious questions. How could an IMOCA 60, especially one as well proven and thoroughly prepared as PRB, break up so disastrously?
One key learning from the incident is that it is possible for an IMOCA to sink very, very suddenly. Organisers have since modified the rules to allow skippers to unseal their grab bags if needed in order to make them more accessible in case of a sudden evacuation.
Just nine days earlier, Vendée skipper Alex Thomson shared shocking videos of cracking in internal structures around the bow area of Hugo Boss. But the cracks, while serious enough to warrant that Thomson paused racing and repaired, were contained to a few areas of the boat, and, crucially, could be both found and fixed.
PRB was launched in 2009/10, from the Verdier-VPLP design partnership, for Vincent Riou’s 2012 and 2016 Vendée Globes (Riou retired from both following collisions). It was known to be among the lightest IMOCAs of its generation, and fast enough to keep pace with the early foilers in the 2016 Vendée, as well as winning two Transat Jacques Vabres.
Escoffier had worked with Riou on his IMOCA campaigns, and was also a key part of the design team for projects such as Banque Populaire’s maxi trimaran, and crew on Dongfeng in the Volvo Ocean Race. Combining Escoffier’s design and technical knowledge, and the 10 years of development Riou had invested, PRB was understood to be among the best prepared boats in the fleet.
In 2018, Riou modified PRB with foils designed by Juan Kouyoumdjian, and Escoffier further reinforced the boat ahead of the 2020 Vendée. Immediately after being rescued, Escoffier’s reaction was disbelief at how the boat had failed, saying: “I have zero regrets about the boat. I added 200kg of carbon. I reinforced everything.”
A few days later, when he spoke to us from Yes We Cam! he had been mulling over possible causes for the failure.
“It could be an issue on the bottom of the hull, but I don’t believe that because, compared to Alex, I had a monolithic construction on the hull so it’s very strong and the boat was well proved.
I’d done much faster speeds against waves before the race to check how safe the boat was, than what I’d been doing in the race. So for me it is more flexing of the deck and when the deck buckled all the load went through the bottom of the hull.
“Something quite the same happened on the previous Vendée Globe to Thomas Ruyant with a sistership of this boat (formerly Groupe Bel) and he also broke his deck.
“Me knowing that, I put some reinforcements under the deck to avoid these kind of issues. And maybe since I put reinforcements, instead of breaking only the deck, I broke everything. It’s a very technical discussion, and I’m looking forward to having it with the architect and designers. Right now it’s only my imagination and my engineering knowledge that can push me to think that.”
We put the question of what might have happened to PRB to Guillaume Verdier, who originally designed the boat. He replied: “I don’t know much about the failure. We suppose it is a deck or maybe sides of the boat that broke.
“Vincent Riou did his own development, and had reinforced the deck. However, we were not involved (neither me or VPLP) in any modifications concerning deck reinforcement and foil design and implantation.
“I do not know how the foils are fitted structurally. It may well that the foil sheared the sides of the boat or that the deck was damaged.”
Foil designer Juan K also clarified: “I was not involved in the structures of PRB nor any reinforcements that have been added. I have, however, full confidence in Kevin and his capacity to have dealt with this properly.”
Verdier added: “My feeling is that there must have been a progressive damage (like debonding of the core) that slowly, slowly progresses to create such a dramatic failure.
“I believe old boats should go through compulsory physical structure tests before such races. It is a terrible accident. We were very fortunate it ended positively.”
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