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Can you put a price on the life of a sailor in distress?

2009 June 1
I was about 15 and crazy about dinghy racing when I was invited to crew aboard a converted 6-Meter in an ocean race. My task was to tend the running backstays.

"Get 'em snug on every tack," said my skipper, adding, "because the tree will come down if you don't." Nothing subtle about those instructions.
We were marching to windward on a breezy day with our main competitor, a sloop named Freya, tucked to leeward when, suddenly, another kid in our crew shouted, "Look, they lost their mast!"

We all looked and, sure enough, Freya was upright in the water, surrounded by a jumble of sails and rigging and the stump of a wooden spar. "They OK?" asked our skipper to someone looking through binoculars. "Who cares?" said the other kid, "They're out of the race!"

I wasn't just crazy about dinghy racing, but anything about sailing. I'd read every book I could find on the subject so, thankfully, I knew enough about the traditions of the sea to keep my mouth shut.

Our skipper gave him a withering look as he commanded, "Ease sheets, let's go take a look." It was clear on the other kid's face that we were giving up a sure victory. We jibed and swept alongside Freya.

"Need a hand?" called our skipper, which unleashed from the other skipper a torrent of such masterful swearing that I remain in awe of it decades later. "Thanks anyway," he finally said, "We'll just pick up the pieces and motor on home." With a wave, we rounded back onto the wind and set off to race again.

As we settled in on the beat, the skipper looked at the kid and said gently, "Something to remember about the sea. All sailors are in this together, and there's an age-old tradition that you always, always, go to the aid of someone in distress, even if it's just to stand by and give moral support. Sure, we threw away the race, but we couldn't just leave them there. Hell," he said looking my way, "if we'd had a problem with the running backstays, that could've been us!"

This all came to mind recently during the Vendée Globe singlehanded around-the-world race. The winner of the previous race, Vincent Riou, was nearing Cape Horn and talking to another Frenchman in the race, Jean Le Cam, by radio when Le Cam suddenly said his boat was capsizing, and contact was lost.

An immediate rescue mission was launched and an aircraft spotted Le Cam's yacht floating upside down, with no sight of Le Cam. Riou was more than 200 miles away and the conditions were not nice: winds gusting to 40 knots, seas to 18 feet. And yet he abandoned racing and headed back to Le Cam's last position.
A large tanker arrived first, but because of the sea conditions, couldn't launch a rescue boat. Riou was on scene 14 hours after the capsize, and saw a small flag poking out of a through-hull fitting: Le Cam was inside the half-filled hull in freezing water.

Riou sailed past the hull and shouted, getting a faint response from Le Cam inside, but could do nothing to help. Four hours later, Le Cam clambered out of the escape hatch in a survival suit and hung onto an upturned rudder.

Riou made three passes to retrieve him, trying to get a line to Le Cam. Growing desperate to get Le Cam out of the water, he made a closer pass. Le Cam was able to lash the line around himself and Riou pulled him aboard.

But, in the process of both steering and throwing the line, Riou had broken one of his outriggers (struts protruding from the hull to support the mast) on the stump of Le Cam's keel. His mast now canted over 30 degrees and was in danger of crashing down.

Riou and Le Cam managed to jury-rig the outrigger, and they planned to stop in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina, to drop off Le Cam and effect repairs.

Sadly, the jury rig didn't hold and the mast came down the following day. Riou and his yacht, named PRB for sponsor Produits de Revetement du Batiment (a French building products company), were out of the race.

If that isn't sad enough news, here's the zinger: Riou's sponsor, PRB, is thinking about suing to recover the costs of rescuing Le Cam, including loss of the mast, sails, hull damage and shipping the yacht back from Argentina. Says PRB CEO, Jean-Jacques Laurent, "There is no debate about the solidarity of the sea, indeed PRB would consider the reverse unethical. But there is another side to it: the heavy financial consequences PRB bears as a result of the operation," which he goes on to estimate at around one million dollars.

The idea that PRB might sue Le Cam or the race organizers for compensation is frightening, especially if it creates a precedent for future maritime Good Samaritan lawsuits. We already have doctors driving past accidents where they could save lives, but they don't want to face potential lawsuits. Do we really want skippers thinking twice about the financial risks before going to someone's aid?

And then there is the question about Riou. He is the consummate seaman, both as an around-the-world winning skipper and as a crewman on the rescue lifeboat in his hometown. Yet he was at the helm when his boat hit Le Cam's during the rescue. Does that put him at risk for poor boathandling while saving a life?

Having sponsored competitors in the Vendée Globe for the past five races (with two winners), PRB should know better than to air such an idea in the first place. Next time, I suggest that PRB pay for insurance, or not compete. Sailing doesn't need this kind of moral deficiency, especially when lives are at risk.

Even better, perhaps it would be best to cast Jean-Jacques Laurent into a life raft somewhere in the stormy Atlantic.

I wonder if he'd feel differently about suing for rescue damages?