by Richard Crockett
Over the weekend Loïc Lepage was dismasted 600 miles SW of Perth, Australia, reporting that ‘Laaland’s’ mast had broken in two places while sailing in 25 knot winds and 3 metre seas. After cutting away the rigging, the 62-year old sailor from Vannes, expressed some concern that one section of the mast may have damaged the hull near the keel, but that the initial ingress of water had stopped. He did not ask for assistance and was planning to set up a jury rig at first light on Sunday and sail to Fremantle unassisted.
Later that all changed when Lepage made a second call to Race HQ to say his yacht was now leaking at the rate of 30 litres of water per 10-15 minutes from an area in the keel hidden from view by a water tank. His pumps were working and keeping up with the flow, but conditions outside had deteriorated, with winds of 40 knots.
The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Canberra, which had already been alerted to ‘Laaland’s’ CODE ORANGE situation earlier, intercepted her EPIRB signal at and immediately issued a MAYDAY relay alert to all ships. A Challenger search and rescue plane was despatched from Perth with a droppable pump onboard, and to assess the situation and photograph the disabled yacht.
The plane arrived on scene and raised communications with Lepage via VHF radio. Lepage advised that he was conducting repairs to his engine and did not require the pump or any other supplies to be dropped. He also stated that water ingress was at a rate of approximately 160 litres per hour, but that the onboard pumps were keeping up. The aircraft reported that the mast did not appear to be attached to the vessel, and that no other significant external damage was visible.
Throughout this period, JRCC Aus. continued to seek assistance from merchant shipping, while GGR Organisers sort to communicated with other sailing vessels in the region. Due to the severe conditions, two merchant ships advised that they were unable to assist for safety reasons.
Later an RAAF P8 search and rescue plane was tasked to overfly the area while a civilian aircraft was relocated from Sydney to Perth to provide back-up. The Maritime Services vessel ‘Stoker’ has also been placed on stand-by.
Francis Tolan, the skipper of the S/V ‘Alizes II’, a Beneteau Ocean 43 participating in the Long Route solo circumnavigation, positioned some 300 miles NW of ‘Laaland’s’ position, offered his assistance, while the bulk carrier ‘Shiosai’, which had been heading west across the Great Australian Bight, also agreed to assist, and altered course towards the distress position.
At 05:07 UTC yesterday, GGR Organisers spoke to Lepage via satphone. The Frenchman advised that water ingress remained at the same rate, that the onboard pumps were keeping up, and that he was not in imminent danger of sinking. He also reported that the yacht’s engine, which had suffered some damage from water ingress into the boat, would not start, and that a jury rig had still to be set-up. ‘Laaland’ continued to drift, and Loïc was seeking rescue and transfer off his vessel.
Lepage has since repaired his engine and been advised to motor in a northerly direction to shorten the distance between him and the rescue vessels.
JRCC Aus. intends to utilise the MV ‘Shiosai’ and SV ‘Alizes II’ as surface rescue assets and to keep ‘Stoker’ on stand-by until a decision will be made based on a re-assessment of weather conditions and progress of ‘Shiosai’ and ‘Alizes II’ overnight.
In addition, an RAAF P8 search and rescue plane will fly direct from Learmonth to the distress position with an ETA of 00h30 UTC today (Monday). Two other planes have also been tasked to provide air overwatch as required from now until the completion of the operation.