Fatal misadventure of maritime hero

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FRANCE WAS mourning the death at sea of the world's greatest yachtsman and one of its favourite heroes yesterday after a series of extraordinary maritime blunders.

Eric Tabarly, the 66-year-old sailing legend whom the French worshipped in the same way they revered Cousteau, died in the early hours of Saturday morning.|

The accident happened as Mr Tabarly's yacht was rounding the southwest corner of Wales, 35 miles off Milford Haven, just after midnight. On encountering choppy seas, with a wind gusting over 20 knots, it became necessary to reduce the sail area by reefing down the mainsail, which is supported at the top by a long pole called a gaff.

Mr Tabarly, seemingly oblivious to fear, volunteered to carry out the job. But while he was trying to secure one end of the gaff to the mast, the sail was struck by a gust of wind and he was knocked off the deck, over the guard rails and into the water.

The four remaining crew members - including a retired French admiral - threw out a lifebuoy in a bid to save their skipper, but they were unable to find him in the darkness. They knew he was probably not wearing a life-jacket. Nor had he been clipped on.

Mr Taberly was renowned for refusing to wear a safety harness while at sea and was often quoted as saying: "I know I'm taking a risk, but I prefer to live free on my boat."

The crew was helpless. They couldn't do anything to help their skipper, nor could they seek assistance, for the boat had no radio on board.

A friend said yesterday: "All his life Tabarly was against the radio. He held them in great suspicion and said they never worked properly. So he refused to have one on board."

They did have a GPS, a satellite positioning system which told them precisely where they were, but the crew was unable to use that information either.

Despite setting off flares throughout the night, not least immediately after Mr Tabarly went overboard, they received no response.

Finally at 7.12am, a chance meeting with the 84ft Australian boat, Longobarda, meant that they could contact the emergency services. Longobarda contacted the air-sea rescue unit at Milford Haven immediately.

But by then, it was almost certainly too late. The water temperature was between 11 and 14 degrees and the average survival time in such circumstances is three to four hours. With three metre waves being kicked up by the blustery wind, Mr Tabarly's efforts to stay afloat would have been made even more difficult.

Nevertheless the full rescue procedure was set in motion. By 7.50am, a lifeboat had been dispatched from Milford Haven, a helicopter from Chivenor, north Devon and the warship, Quorn, which was at sea in the area, was instructed to assist. Longobarda began to help in the search of the 116- square mile area too.

The search continued until, 5pm, 17 hours after Mr Tabarly went missing, when the Milford Haven coastguard called it off. However, the French were not satisfied. They were granted permission to reopen the search and sent a rescue aircraft to the area. The British agreed to assist their efforts. But after another five hours the search was called off.

Pen Duick, the boat on which Mr Tabarly learnt to sail, was escorted into Milford Haven harbour on Saturday evening, its crew in shock. The search was officially called off at 10.20pm on Saturday, 22 hours after the accident.

President Jacques Chirac, like many of his compatriots, had been hoping against hope that Mr Tabarly would by some miracle be found alive. But eventually they had to face the inevitable: that the the single French aircraft still scouring the area would be lucky even to find the body.

"Despite recent searches that have turned out to be in vain, Eric Tabarly was so present in the heart of French people, who believed he was indestructible, that I dared not believe that he had disappeared," Mr Chirac said in a statement. "It is with great sadness and feeling that I have to face the evidence. This fantastic sailor, endowed with a unique sense of the sea, has marked several generations of sailors."

He praised the national hero's will, perseverance and strength, adding: "As a ship captain, he lifted the colours of our country very high on the world's oceans."

The French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin also paid tribute to Mr Tabarly, who was, he said, "the symbol of the seaman." "This man who was afraid of nothing followed his passion and his will to the end," he said.

Mr Tabarly's fateful voyage began on Friday morning, ten days after a party to celebrate the 100th birthday of his boat, Pen Duick, a 49ft yacht, bought built by his father 50 years ago.

The boat and crew were en route to Fairlie, on the Clyde, where next weekend, there is a gathering of vintage yachts designed and built in that town by William Fife. They had interrupted their journey, taking shelter from heavy weather in the harbour at Newlyn, north Cornwall since Tuesday. Mr Tabarly even took in a tourist trip to Lands End. But on Friday morning, as the weather eased a little, Mr Tabarly decided to push on, knowing that he could break the journey again in Belfast if the weather deteriorated.

The crew comprised a close friend and photographer, Erwain Quemere, who was on the helm at the time of the accident, and the retired French admiral, Rebec, from Toulon. The other two were a couple from Chamonix, in the French Alps. They were friends of Mr Tabarly, who had bought a chalet as he developed a parallel passion for skiing.

Mr Tabarly was the winner of the first solo round-the-world yacht race, he set a speed record for crossing the Atlantic in 1980 and took several major solo racing titles. He established dozens of international sailing records.

Obituary, Review, page 6