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Philip Sweeney
Sunday 18 May 1997 00:02 BST

Pete Goss, 35, is one of Britain's most experienced racing sailors. Last year he turned back in heavy seas during the Vendee Globe non-stop round-the-world race to rescue his fellow competitor, the Frenchman Raphael Dinelli - an action of singular bravery for which the French have awarded him the Legion d'Honneur. He lives in Cornwall with his wife Tracy and their three children. Raphael Dinelli, 29, has worked in racing and boat- building for eight years. Last autumn he entered the Vendee race for the first time, only to nearly die after his boat sank. In August, Dinelli will be marrying Virginie, the mother of his young son; Pete Goss will be best man

Pete Goss: I hadn't met Raphael properly before the race, because he was a late entrant and wasn't hanging around [the starting port] Les Sables d'Olonne like all the rest of us. Then on the morning of the start, when everybody does a sort of round of all the competing boats, I jumped on board Raphael's yacht, grabbed his hand and said: "Take care, be safe and best of luck." I don't speak any French and he only speaks sort of pidgin English, so that was it. I only got a fleeting impression - the boat looked good, in good shape, you could tell he was a good skipper. And Raphael looked fit, positive, you know, shiny eyes, a good bloke.

I next saw him a month and a half later in the middle of the Southern Ocean, which is one of the most desolate places in the world - there's no shipping there, no vapour trails overhead ... nothing. Two days earlier, on Christmas Day, I had had notification of a mayday. Each boat has, in addition to its telecommunications equipment, a special button which you press only in a life-threatening situation, and then the race organisers notify the local rescue authorities. So I simply picked up a mayday notification on the screen in my cockpit; I didn't know who was in trouble. Then a little bit later, another emergency message came in to say it was Raphael. I immediately decided to turn round and go for him. There was another competitor only four hours away, but his communications had gone down in a storm, so as far as we knew it was up to me.

Turning round was hazardous. My boat, Aqua Quorum, wasn't built to go for long against the prevailing winds. I was knocked down lots of times, the boat lay over, mast in the water, and stuff like that. But she's a good boat and we plugged away all night and the following day the wind eased. I didn't have any sense of panic, but I did wonder whether Raph- ael would be alive. It's very, very cold in that part of the world, and I knew that, effectively, his clock was ticking away.

When I got near Raphael's position, I couldn't find him. It was rough, with 30ft waves and very poor visibility. An Australian Air Force plane flew over and flashed their landing lights when they were above him so I could get closer. Suddenly I saw this little glow of orange, popping up and then disappearing about a quarter of a mile away. As I got nearer, I did wonder if I was going to find a body and what I would tell his family; but 10 minutes before I arrived the Air Force plane said he was alive and able to move, and that took a huge weight off my mind.

The rescue itself was pretty much a clinical, professional job. Getting Raphael on board the boat took about 10 or 15 minutes. As the sea was pretty rough, I didn't have time to think about him; certainly we couldn't speak, everything was done by gesture. It wasn't until he was on the boat and I rolled him over onto the deck that we knew we'd cracked it, and the thing I'll always remember was his eyes. I'll never forget the emotion and gratitude in that pair of eyes: it's astonishing what can shine out of a hole in a survival suit, really. Then we had a little hug and got back to it, because we still had to get the boat going.

Raphael was in a bunk for about four or five days. I had to lift him out of the bunk to go to the toilet for the first three days and he needed feeding every four hours. At first, he talked endlessly about the disaster and the rescue: he had to get it out of his system. We had some problems communicating, but we drew pictures and diagrams and it worked okay. By the end of 10 days we could have quite a deep conversation. We talked about everything: the rescue, sailing, safety, life, everything.

It was strange having Raphael on board. It was partly a welcome relief after so much solitude, but it was an intrusion as well, in a way. I'd settled into a routine, then suddenly there was somebody else on the boat and I had to change. I didn't begrudge him, but the one bizarre thing was I felt I needed to tidy up the boat.

I diverted to Hobart, tied up at a buoy for repairs, and a motorboat with Customs and a doctor took Raphael off. The following day, Raphael came out in a rowing boat and we talked over the guard rails. We said goodbye, and agreed to meet for a beer when I finished. But I was back in the race then [turning back for Raphael had meant technically leaving the race temporarily], trying to focus on getting into gear again. I next saw him wating at the finish with my wife, which was magic. Then we all sloped off and drank loads of beer, basically.

We're very, very close now. The experience was a powerful catalyst, but we're kindred spirits despite that. I mean, I got on with Raphael, but you could pick up somebody and have a character clash, it's just life's lottery. I do this single-handed round-the-world race and I make a very, very special friend. Strange, really, isn't it?

Raphael Dinelli I was very busy trying to finish preparations during the days before the race, so I hardly met the other competitors. The morning of departure, Pete came on board my boat with some other skippers to say au revoir, but I still had loads of work so we didn't really talk. I was so under pressure, I can hardly remember anything of Pete then.

A month and a half later, I was in a group of four boats in the Southern Ocean. There was Catherine Chabot, Pete, me, and the Belgian skipper, all around 100 to 150 miles apart, and in touch with each other by radio. My accident happened when I encountered a huge storm that blew up very suddenly. I took all the sails down, but the boat was still going through 15 to 20m waves, taking off at 30 knots from the top and hitting the bottom at tremendous speed. I was in the cockpit, there was a violent shock, and the boat turned over. The mast broke and crashed through the boat, and all the porthole glasses broke free. Then the boat turned the right way round again, but with a huge hole right through it and all the interior smashed, so I set off the distress alarm. I then waited on top of the boat in 10 or 15 metre waves, in very low temperatures, no food, nothing, my feet rapidly freezing. It was 24 hours before I saw the Australian Air Force plane, one hour before the second night fell. I thought about everything, my wife, child, you know, playing through the film of my life ... I thought "Where is Catherine Chabot? Where is Pete Goss? Did the alarm signal work?" I wasn't afraid, I was angry, really angry. Not with the sea or the boat - I was angry because I knew death was coming and because nobody had arrived ... and I had to keep fighting mentally, because if you don't fight ceaselessly, you're finished.

The plane arrived and dropped a life raft. I got into it and 10 minutes later the boat sank. There was a message in the raft saying "Peter Goss, 10 hours south", so that restored my morale and made me really want to survive. I spent another night in the raft, frozen, paralysed, and only the hope of seeing Pete in the morning got me through that night. Next morning, the planes reappeared and put on their lights, like the previous day, and I thought that's it, Pete Goss must have broken his mast or something, he's not coming, I'll never last another day. In fact, 10 minutes later, I saw Aqua Quorum 200 metres away.

Once I was on board Pete dragged me down below, took off my survival suit, put warm clothes on me, made me a cup of tea, and then I slept. I stayed four or five days immobile, without any feeling in my feet; Pete was in contact with the doctor, diagnosing, manipulating my feet, giving me medication. I speak basic English, so after a couple of days we got by; Pete spoke slowly, carefully, and if I didn't understand, he drew pictures. For a lot of the time, we spoke of the story of the wreck and the rescue, and then later we talked about boats, safety, new technology for speed sailing - a lot of it was technical terms, boat vocabulary, so it was quite easy. But you can't talk about boats for 10 days and later we talked of our families, our pasts, religion, all sorts of things. When you've lived through an event like that together, it makes you very close, there are no taboo subjects, you can speak without conventional restrictions. So we became very close friends because of that extreme situation.

At first, my main feelings had been just enormous relief and intense joy. Pete's, too, I think. But in the following days, I realised fully that Pete had done something wonderful. As I lay in the bunk and saw that all the provisions and food were flung all over the boat, I understood how hard it had been for Pete, too - he'd been mad to come back for me.

My friendship with Pete now is different from other skippers. Of course, everybody's friendly, but when you're on land you're all fighting for sponsorship and planning and working, and when you're at sea, there's a certain competitiveness: it's not war, but you all want to be in front. But for Pete and I all that has been superseded, totally left behind.

Pete dropped me at Hobart, we said goodbye, and I went back the next day to check that he was okay - because at that point he had re-entered the race and had to re-establish his race psychology, to re-motivate himself, which is not too easy. As soon as I saw him, I knew he'd done it. His attitude had changed, he couldn't even pay much attention to me, and there was press everywhere. I was even a little put out at first, but then I was really pleased, because I realised he'd succeeded in getting back into the right frame of mind.

For the rest of the race I was in touch with Pete each week by fax, mainly discussing how his race was going, how the boat was performing, and how my health was coming along. When he arrived at the finish, I met him with champagne - long with 150,000 other people. An amazing day. We couldn't really talk, it was chaos. The next day me and my wife had breakfast with Pete and Tracy and we talked over events. Now we're going to have a holiday together so our two families can get to know each other. My little daughter, Philippine, has met Elliott, his youngest son, and they fought over each other's toys and got on really well.

Would it have been the same if another competitor had rescued me? Would they all have done the same? I just haven't the right to ask that question. Each person does what he feels he should. But it was me who was sinking and it was Pete who rescued me. It was destiny, and destiny also decreed that afterwards we'd get on so well.

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