Captain Ken #5 - Yacht race rescue
Captain Ken Owen had a long career at sea which included sailing as master with Overseas Containers Limited (OCL), P&O Containers and P&O Nedlloyd. Ken is now retired and in 2020 he started writing a monthly article for publication using the pen name 'Captain Ken' in the Mellor Church Outlook magazine.
A number of articles that Ken has written are about his time at sea with the company and he has very kindly agreed that we can share them here.
In this fifth article, first published in his church magazine in November 2020, Ken describes how the French yachtsman Eric Tabarly was rescued in the North Atlantic by the container vessel Strathconon.
You have probably heard the statement, usually from well-known TV personalities, that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing’. Unfortunately that has not been my experience.
For several years I was captain of Strathconon, a medium-sized container ship. We had twelve British Officers and a full Chinese crew. We were engaged on a regular service between North Europe and North America and on one of our Atlantic crossings we were bound from Le Havre to Boston in a very miserable November. Our clothing was good, but the weather was horrible with gale force winds and heavy driving rain.
Our voyage coincided with the famous ocean yacht race, known as La Route de Rhum, which goes from St. Malo to Guadeloupe. This particular race was notable, as Eric Tabarly, the French and world champion yachtsman, was competing in his large trimaran, Côte d’Or considered , by some, to be the world’s fastest yacht.
Part way across the Atlantic, we received a radio distress message from none other than Eric Tabarly himself ,saying his trimaran was starting to break up. The race had a rescue yacht the Pen Duick VI, which was actually owned by Eric, but the sea was far too rough for it to approach.
As we were the nearest large vessel to Tabarly‘s position at that time, and after consultation with the Portuguese Coast Guard, we altered course and headed for the area, which was some twelve hours steaming distance away.
Prior to arriving at the casualty area, the Chief Officer organised the crew to prepare all possibly helpful equipment available, such as safety nets, life buoys and ropes. However, as he was checking the equipment he noticed that our old Chinese bosun had arrived carrying a huge fire axe. When questioned about this, he explained that many years ago off Shanghai, he had had a similar experience, when to his horror, the person they had arrived to rescue produced a gun, and robbed them all. ‘This time, I’m going to be ready,’ he said.
It was 3 a.m. before we reached the casualty area, and I was able to speak to Eric on the VHF phone, and explain to him how we intended to manoeuvre. He told us his boat was breaking up, and he was clinging to his last remaining pontoon. Once we were close enough to shelter him from the heavy wind and swell, the rescue yacht, towing an inflatable dinghy, cautiously made its way to where Eric was clinging and as it passed him slowly Eric was able to roll into the dinghy and was safely hauled aboard the yacht.
Eric called me from the safety of his rescue boat and we had a pleasant conversation. He was obviously extremely grateful and I wished him well, and we proceeded on our voyage.
The following day I received a telephone call from a publisher in Paris informing me that he had heard of the rescue, and offered to pay any price I suggested for the photographs of the rescue. Even though I assured him we had not taken any photographs, he was the first person to board the ship when we reached Boston, desperate to purchase the non-existing photographs. There were, of course, no camera phones at that time, but after this incident, I did make a point of ensuring my camera was always available on the bridge.
I was very sad to hear, however, that ten years after our rescue incident, Eric Tabarly was drowned after falling from his yacht whilst sailing from France to Scotland.
I believe he is very fondly remembered, particularly in France, where he is still regarded as a national hero.
(This article was first published in the August 2020 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine.)
For further articles in this series:
We are now up to date with the series of articles relating directly to Captain Owen's time with OCL, P&O Containers and P&O Nedlloyd but will be keeping an eye out for further items of interest. If you are interested in reading other articles that he has written which we haven't used (at least not so far!) then please feel free to go to mellorchurch.org/outlook-magazine/.