Why British crew abandoned their yacht 400 miles NW of Ireland

PHOTO: The crew of Fleur were rescued by the oil tanker Overseas Yellowstone.

Ben Stoddart, the 43-year-old skipper of Fleur, an Island Packet 38, was forced to abandon his yacht with his crew of two over the Bank Holiday weekend after being caught in hurricane-force winds.

The yacht had been knocked down three times and was overwhelmed by towering waves as Ben from Bristol tried to slow the yacht down amidst 60-knot gusts.

The crew’s ordeal began on Friday morning. They deployed a sea anchor but it was lost when a wave came over the stern and broke the rope. The first of the three knockdowns happened in the early hours, causing the failure of the electronic navigation instruments and structural damage. The sprayhood was lost and water was flooding into the boat.

The crew alerted Falmouth Coastguard at 0500 and at 0930 the skipper suffered a blow to the head when the boat was flipped upside down. There was further damage to the boat. The main electricity generator was torn loose and both solar panels were lost.

After the third knockdown in seven hours, Coastguards were asked to mount a rescue and the crew huddled together in the forecabin, which was least damaged by flooding. They awaited rescue, which came at 1920 from a tanker, Overseas Yellowstone, bound for Portland, America.

Even the rescue did not run smoothly. Crew man Richard Spink was first off the Fleur, jumping across to a rope ladder dropped from the tanker, and he was followed by Raoul Surcouf. Skipper Ben, who was last to leave, fell back into the sea and had to be hauled aboard manually by five men on the tanker deck. It is thought he may have broken some ribs in the fall.

‘Thank God we’re all alive! Ben said from the bridge of the tanker.

The yacht had left Plymouth as part of an expedition to Greenland under the flag of the ‘Carbon Neutral Expedition’. After the planned arrival in Greenland, Ben’s two crew – Raoul (40) a landscape gardner from Jersey, and Richard (31) a physiotherapist from Bristol – had planned to cross the Greenland ice cap.

A spokeswoman for the expedition, said Spink had described the ordeal as “36 hours of hell”.

The three crew are now nursing their bruises on their way to Maine, USA where they are due to arrive on Friday.

Their relief was tinged with a sense of irony as the rescue craft sent by Falmouth Coastguard for the environmental expedition was an 113,000-tonne oil tanker.

In a statement from the tanker Spink said: “We regret expedition has been abandoned due to repeated, irreparable storm damage to our sailing vessel.

‘In the north Atlantic we experienced some of the harshest conditions known, over a period of 36 hours, with winds gusting hurricane-force 12. At 10.00hrs on 1st May 2009 the decision was made that the risk to our own personal safety was too great to continue and a rescue was co-ordinated with Falmouth Coastguard.

“The team are now safely and ironically aboard the113,000-tonne oil tanker Overseas Yellowstone. The ship’s captain and crew are being fantastic hosts. The CNE team would like to give heartfelt thanks to Falmouth and Irish coastguards for their professionalism in the rescue operation.”