Thank God ... it's a miracle

The thud of a fist and Briton is saved from cruel seas; THE RESCUE

Ian Burrell
Friday 10 January 1997 00:02

It was the thud of an Australian fist on the carbon hull of Tony Bullimore's overturned yacht that told him he was not going to die.

The British yachtsman had spent four days and four nights in an air-pocket inside his capsized yacht, praying that he would be saved. "I started shouting `I'm coming, I'm coming, coming'," he said. "It took a few seconds to get from one end of the boat to the other. Then I took a few deep breaths and I dived out of the boat."

It was the culmination of one of the most dramatic sea rescues of all time - and a heroic survival in a cabin perched on boxes with "a little chocolate and a little water" and three feet of seawater lapping around him.

Mr Bullimore had been stranded in one of the most treacherous parts of the world, more than 1,500 miles from the Australian coast and 900 miles from Antarctica.

The conditions in which he had existed were the stuff of nightmares - solitude, pitch darkness, and absolute silence save for the sound of the icy waters sloshing at his feet.

Tossed around by giant waves, he nibbled pieces of chocolate and took breaths from a diminishing air supply.

When Bullimore emerged into daylight early yesterday morning, the moment was almost spiritual. "It was heaven, absolute heaven," he said. "I really, really never thought I would reach that far. I was starting to look back over my life and was thinking, `Well, I've had a good life, I've done most of the things I had wanted to'.

"If I was picking words to describe it, it would be a miracle, an absolute miracle."

Bullimore said he felt he had been "born all over again" and he began his new life yesterday by heading back to land on board the Australian frigate HMAS Adelaide, whose skipper, Captain Raydon Gates, said the rescued sailor's first words had been "Thank God" and "It's a miracle". Although the Australians are not putting a price on the rescue, the cost is likely to be in the region of pounds 1m.

The rescue team was first alerted to the Briton's plight on Sunday, when a satellite distress signal was picked up from his yacht, Exide Challenger. Winds of 55 Knots had snapped the boat's keel and capsized it. To the very last, the rescuers were not sure if Bullimore was still on board, floating on a life-raft, or lost for ever.

Thierry Dubois, a French yachtsman who like Bullimore was a competitor in the Vendee Globe round-the-world race, had also sent a distress signal from the same area.

In extreme weather conditions, an Australian Orion spotter plane scoured the icy expanse of the Southern Ocean for the two men and HMAS Adelaide began its long rescue voyage from Perth, eventually picking up Dubois from a life-raft on Wednesday evening.

Inside Exide Challenger, Bullimore was doing his best to help the rescue. From his perch in an air trap at the top of the boat's upturned hull, he repeatedly dived into the icy waters to harness his life-raft so that it would not drift away and deceive the rescuers.

On Tuesday, however, the rescue operation was distracted when one of the Briton's emergency beacons was detected some distance from the yacht. But the rescuers continued to hope that the yachtsman had remained with his craft.

At 1am GMT yesterday, shortly after daybreak in the Southern Ocean, Adelaide reached the stricken yacht which had been sighted on Tuesday by the spotter plane but with no sign of life.

Some of the crew were dispatched in a dinghy and Bullimore heard first the knocking on the hull and then the sound of voices. Plunging once again into the freezing waters, he swam for 15 seconds through the darkness before emerging from beneath the yacht. Captain Gates said: "When he bobbed up alongside the yacht it was a tremendously exciting feeling throughout the ship."

At Bullimore's home in Bristol, news of the rescue was greeted with the popping of champagne corks and tears of joy. "The old dog is alive. He's bloody alive," said his wife, Lalel. She said that despite the terrible anxiety of the past few days, she knew she could not stop her "stubborn" husband going to sea again. "He's his own man. He will do what he wants to do. If he thinks he's got to go on, then he goes on," she said.

The Queen last night sent a message to Bullimore, praising him for his "extraordinary feat of survival" and to the Australian rescue services, congratulating them on their "dramatic rescue".

Suzanne Moore, page 21

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