Rescued in freezing waters of Cape Horn

Vendée Globe sailor trapped in capsized yacht is saved by fellow competitor
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A French sailor who was trapped in an air pocket inside his capsized yacht in the freezing, storm-tossed waters of the Southern Ocean for 16 hours was rescued yesterday after a fellow competitor in the round-the-world Vendée Globe race went to his aid.

There were fears for the life of Jean Le Cam, 49, when his phone went dead and a distress beacon was activated as he sailed close to the treacherous Cape Horn in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Vincent Riou, another competitor in the solo, 26,000-mile race, altered course and managed to get alongside the partially submerged yacht, the 60ft VM Materiaux.

Despite five-metre waves and winds gusting at up to 30 knots, Le Cam plunged into the freezing water. He was only picked up by Riou's boat, called PRB, which was damaged in the process, at the fourth attempt.

Initially it was thought that Le Cam, who had been in third place when the yacht capsized, would be trapped until this morning when divers from a Chilean navy tug were due to arrive on the scene. However a race spokeswoman said: "Jean Le Cam has been rescued safe and sound.

"A full-scale rescue operation was in place to retrieve Jean Le Cam from the upturned hull of VM Materiaux – a Chilean Navy tug boat equipped with divers was on its way, a helicopter had been deployed and the tanker Sonangol Kassanje was standing by.

"But in the end, it was Vincent Riou who successfully recovered fellow skipper and friend Le Cam.

"Vincent Riou circled repeatedly to retrieve the skipper from the water and on the fourth attempt he successfully rescued Le Cam on board PRB.

"Le Cam appears to be unhurt, as Riou reported that both skippers worked on deck to stabilise PRB's mast." Communications with VM Materiaux, were dramatically severed as Le Cam told Riou that he thought he was about to capsize in one of the most remote and hostile areas of the planet some 200 miles west of Cape Horn. Shortly afterwards, the phone went dead and the distress beacon was set off. Riou and another racer, Armel Le Cleach, began sailing towards his position as race organisers began their own rescue operation.

Riou arrived first on the scene and circled the upturned hull of his friend's boat, calling out his name. They were only able to spot the yacht in the mountainous seas because of the presence of the tanker, which was standing by 300 metres from the yacht. Its Indian skipper, Captain Singh, had stayed alongside, blasting his horn to reassure the stranded yachtsman, yet he was unable to launch his own rescue boat because of the stormy conditions.

Le Cam, who is from Brittany, is an experienced sailor who came second in the last Vendée Globe, which finished in 2005.

Held every four years, the Vendée Globe is considered to be the world's toughest yacht race. Known as "the Everest of the Seas", the event has one of the highest fatality rates in sport – on a par with high-altitude mountaineering and statistically more dangerous than space travel. Since it was first held in 1990, three of the 67 competitors have lost their lives. It has also thrown up more than its fair share of drama, such as the plight of the Briton Tony Bullimore, who was rescued after his yacht capsized in 1996.

This year, of the 30 sailors who set out from France's Atlantic coast in November, 17 have been forced to abandon their quest to claim the ultimate crown in deep-water sailing. Although Dame Ellen MacArthur made her name by coming second in the race, the French continue to dominate and are currently occupying the first four places. Le Cam's capsize means Britain's Sam Davies moves up to fifth place. She has been given a 32-hour redress for being diverted to the aid of Yann Eliès after he broke his leg and had to be rescued by the Royal Australian Navy before Christmas.

The Briton Brian Thompson, lying seventh in his Bahrain Team Pindar (GBR) said that the latest crisis had sent shockwaves through the entire fleet. "It certainly makes me double check, because something like that can happen at any time," he said.