Australian welcome leaves rescued yachtsmen all at sea

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tony Bullimore threw back his head and laughed when I asked him yesterday if it was true that Kevin Costner was going to make the film about his extraordinary shipwreck survival in the Southern Ocean. Without replying, he reached out and touched the brim of my hat and pushed it down to my nose. It was a gesture that said: "Don't be so cheeky". Then he was hustled into an ambulance and whisked away from the quay at Fremantle, near Perth, to be reunited with his wife, Lalel, after a hero's welcome on a brilliant sunny morning.

Mr Bullimore was overwhelmed by the sight that greeted him when he sailed in at 8am local time yesterday, accompanied by the French yachtsman Thierry Dubois aboard the Australian frigate HMAS Adelaide, the ship which rescued them both after their yachts capsized 1,600 miles south-west of Australia while competing in a French-organised round-the-world race.

Thousands of cheering well-wishers, a navy band playing "It's a Wonderful World", flags, speeches, government officials, and at least 100 journalists and camera crews, made it a great hero's return, and a scene for which Hollywood reportedly is already preparing the script.

Determined not to be hobbled by the trench foot which he picked up during four days trapped in the hull of his upturned yacht, Mr Bullimore walked with a limp and a broad grin down the gangplank. It was the former Royal Marine's first landing since starting the Vendee Globe race off the French Atlantic coast in November. Two fingers on his left hand were bandaged, and his hands and nose bore the marks of frostbite. Wearing grey navy overalls and a blue cap, he said: "I have been given another chance. It's been absolutely astonishing. I am slightly emotional over this. All I can say is thank you to everyone on the Adelaide..." Then he turned, looked up to the ship's crew and threw open his arms. They clapped him.

Mr Dubois said: "If you want to speak about heroes, Australia has a lot of heroes and I think I have met some of them, the aircraft crew, the ship's crew ... This is something I will never forget."

At Fremantle Hospital, Dr Harry Oxer, director of hyperbaric medicine, said the men were in extraordinarily good shape. Mr Dubois required no treatment but Mr Bullimore will have daily treatment in the hospital's hyperbaric chamber, similar to the decompression treatment given to divers with the bends. The chamber will maximise the flow of oxygen to his damaged fingers and feet. Dr Oxer said he hoped Mr Bullimore would make a full recovery after a few days.

Yesterday, Mr Bullimore also had an operation on a finger he trapped in a hatch in his yacht.

When they stepped ashore, the survivors made a pointed contrast: the tall, handsome, phlegmatic 29 year-old Frenchman and the stocky, feisty, wise-cracking Englishman who, at 58, is at an age when most of his contemporaries are thinking of less forbidding pastimes than solo round-the-world yachting. But they had one thing in common: the will to never say die. As Mr Bullimore put it yesterday: "I couldn't get any further down in my spirits, and I started to allocate the last few hours ... At the same time, a little bit of the old professionalism hit me: keep going, don't give up. All of a sudden, I heard the sound of an aircraft circling overhead."

The cheque books were out yesterday with promotional offers that could make Mr Bullimore more than enough money to replace his wrecked yacht, the Exide Challenger. Chocolate and bottled water, on which he survived, are just two of the products bidding for his endorsements.

The public side of Mr Bullimore's reunion with his wife at the British consul's residence in Perth was bought by an Australian television network,which reportedly for paid the couple more than pounds 75,000.

As they were shown hugging last night, Mrs Bullimore said: "I never gave up hope because I knew the old bulldog would come home." Mr Bullimore said: "You are either a survivor or you aren't a survivor." He said he would continue solo round-the-world sailing. "That's the way I am. It's the competitiveness, putting yourself up against other people. That's important to me." He scoffed at suggestions that he undertake trauma counselling: "What would you sooner do, go and have a nice beer in the pub or go and be counselled? It doesn't take much to work it out."

The couple will return to Britain as soon as doctors have given Mr Bullimore the all-clear. Meanwhile, Mr Bullimore is using his experience to make suggestions for improving safety for round-the-world yacht races. Raphael Dinelli, a French race competitor saved by Peter Goss, a British competitor, yesterday thanked the Austral-ian air force for their role in his rescue. Mr Dinelli said he hoped to involve Mr Bullimore and Mr Dubois in a plan to make future races safer.

A fourth competitor in the race has not been as lucky. The search has been called off for Gerry Roufs, 43, a Canadian whose last known position was south of Easter Island and west of the tip of South America.

The rescuers of Mr Bullimore and Mr Dubois yesterday gave their first detailed accounts of last week's events. They emphasised the crucial role of communications technology, such as the distress beacons from both men's yachts which sent satellite signals to the race organisers in Paris last Sunday, enabling the Australian authorities to find the yachts.

But the rescuers also praised the men's physical and mental strength, without which they would not have survived. Hank Scott, 25, the navy lieutenant who climbed down a wire from a helicopter to winch Mr Dubois to safety, said: "Mr Dubois and Mr Bullimore were perfect survivors. They didn't panic and they were mentally composed. Mr Bullimore was even better because he was making jokes and told his rescuers he loved them."

Ian McLachlan, the Australian defence minister, told the survivors: "You were lucky, gentlemen, that this country has the people and the equipment to mount such a rescue mission successfully ...

"But you ... seem to have made separately all the right decisions. Your survival reminds us of the ability of certain men and women to transcend difficulties which would overwhelm the rest of us. These are the examples which lead us on."