Weather delays rescue of sailor in Southern Ocean

20th January 2013, Comments 0 comments

A Frenchman adrift in a life raft in huge Southern Ocean swells was facing the prospect of a third night at sea Sunday, with an Antarctic cruise ship racing the clock to reach him before sunset.

Alain Delord was attempting to sail solo and without assistance around the world when his yacht, Tchouk Tchouk Nougat, was damaged in rough weather off southern Australia's Tasmania island on Friday.

The Frenchman was forced to abandon ship and has been adrift in a life raft on the Southern Ocean for more than three days.

An Antarctic cruise ship carrying 100 passengers was diverted about 1,800 kilometres to his assistance and had hoped to reach Delord on Sunday evening.

But captain of the PV Orion, Mike Taylor, said worsening conditions had slowed their progress and their window to attempt a rescue was fading.

"We were doing good speed until about late last night, about 13.5 knots, which is the ship's maximum speed," Taylor told a Fairfax newspapers reporter travelling on board the Orion.

"Since then, the swell has increased from three to four metres and, more significantly, it has changed direction. Waves that were previously coming from behind the ship are now coming at us head on and we are pitching quite a bit.

"It's slowed us down to about 12.5 knots and we could slow down further still."

If the Orion was unable to reach Delord in the next hour Taylor said the rescue, some 500 nautical miles from Tasmania, might have to be postponed until morning.

"Sunset is at 9.30pm so it is critical we get to him while we still have a few hours of sunlight. Otherwise we will probably have to wait until the morning to pick him up. It's just too dangerous to try anything like that after dark.

"We can't even tether him to the ship either. The only thing we'll be able to do is stand off and wait till the morning."

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority confirmed that the Orion had not yet reached Delord, who had been dropped food, water, communications equipment and a survival suit and was said to be in "reasonable" spirits.

The crew of the Orion had earlier said they were anticipating difficult conditions for the rescue, with high winds and waves of up to seven metres (23 feet).

"A life raft is harder to see -- it's a very big ocean out there," Taylor said, describing the prospect of spotting Delord alone as a "very big if".

Once they had located Delord, Taylor said the plan was to launch a Zodiac inflatable dinghy to go out and meet him.

If the weather was too rough, the other option was to approach Delord's life raft from the windward side and "kind of slowly drift down onto him".

"And then it would be a case of getting a heaving line over to him, hook him up to our pulley and then just sort of drag him back to the ship," he said.

Taylor said Delord was "probably not going to be walking" after three days in a life raft but the fact he had been able to collect the supplies dropped to him by air indicated he was "probably pretty agile and tough".

"It must have been a hell of a job to launch the raft in the kind of conditions he faced earlier on, so my assumption is he is going to be in a traumatised state," he said.

"If necessary we can use a rope and a pulley to haul him up to the door and in."

The Orion was 11 days into an 18-day passenger cruise of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic when it was drafted into the rescue. It was the only ship within 100 nautical miles to respond to AMSA's distress call.

AMSA said it had stayed in regular contact with Delord throughout Saturday night, with three commercial aircraft involved in the operation including two with French interpreters on board.

Delord, an experienced yachtsman, has been at sea since October last year and was reportedly following the route of the Vendee Globe round-the-world ocean race.

© 2013 AFP

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