When You’re Stuck in the Antarctic, Who You Gonna Call?

The recent rescue of a French sailor poses ethical and financial questions

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French skipper Alain Delord onboard his boat on July 15, 2012. Delord spent three days adrift on a lifeboat after his craft capsized during a storm off the coast of Tasmania and was rescued by Australian authorities on Jan. 20, 2013

In the early hours of Oct. 27, Alain Delord, an accomplished French sailor with 17 transatlantic voyages under his belt, took off on his most ambitious adventure to date: a solo circumnavigation of the clipper route.

The traditional course between Europe and Australia of square-rig sailing ships of the 19th century, the clipper route travels south down the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope for a clockwise turn around Antarctica’s Southern Ocean. Unimpeded by landmass, the strong underwater currents and winds of the last leg make the clipper route the fastest round-the-world sailing route — as well as the most dangerous. The Southern Ocean is home to the consistently largest waves in the world and troughs so large they were once referred to by mariners as “holes in the sea.”

On Jan. 17, after 82 days of going one-on-one against the sea, Delord’s luck run out. A rogue wave turned his 10.2-m fiberglass yacht upside down in the ocean and snapped the mast like a twig. Lashed by rain and wind with weighted steel cables slicing through the air, Delord somehow found the strength to launch his life raft, jump into the ocean and hoist himself into the raft after abandoning ship. He then activated his Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon (EPIRB), a GPS-enabled device that transmits an SOS on the 407-MHz distress frequency to the nearest rescue coordination center (RCC), which in this case was in the Australian capital, Canberra. That RCC then relayed Delord’s distress call to the nearest ship, the MV Orion, a luxury cruise liner en route from Antarctica to World Heritage–listed Macquarie Island.

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In accordance with his obligations under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, Captain Mike Taylor changed course and steamed toward Delord’s EPIRB signal in a rescue mission that would become world news and cost his employer and Australian taxpayers millions of dollars. It was then that my world and Delord’s collided.

The ship’s owner, Orion Expeditions, had invited me on the expedition to write a review for a travel magazine. The deal took 12 months to put together, required the purchase of waterproof clothing, specialized camera gear and insurance and saw me miss a very important family gathering. That being the case, I couldn’t help but feel a small amount of contempt for Delord when Captain Taylor announced our cruise was over, and we were now effectively under the command of the RCC in Canberra. The look on the faces of other passengers, some of whom had paid more than $80,000 for a cabin, told me they did too. But to their credit, not one of them grumbled during the 52-hour, 1,000-km course correction we undertook to save the hide of a daredevil who decided to test his mettle in the most remote place on earth. To the contrary, the passengers rallied to Delord’s cause, with the ship taking on a party atmosphere in the countdown to the final tense moments that saw the unlucky-lucky Frenchman plucked from the sea in the nick of time and berthed gratis — not that he ever planned it that way — in a five-star luxury stateroom with marble bathroom, 24-hour room service and satellite TV.

After disembarking in Hobart, Delord was paraded in front of media in a press conference that dished out a deliciously happy ending to eager audiences. He was correctly framed as a delightful man who was both eternally grateful and concurrently remorseful for all the trouble, risk and expense he put everyone through. Yet, throughout all of this, no one in the media nor any politician said a word to chastise Delord for behavior that should rightly be seen as an egotistical overindulgence, driving him to push the limits of adventure without first sparing a thought for those left holding the bill (in this case, Australian taxpayers and Orion’s owner) when things go pear-shaped.

So how big is that bill? The RCC usually takes weeks or months adding it up, by which time nobody is paying attention. An Australian Broadcast Corporation radio program estimated Delord’s rescue could cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars after learning it costs $10,000 to keep a jet in the sky for an hour and that there were up to five jets circling Delord’s life raft at one time. Throw in the price tag of a round-the-clock coordination center in Canberra, use of military assets, ground staff and so on, and a picture emerges of an operation with the look, feel and budget of an ’80s action movie. Based on previous rescue figures, my estimate is $10 million.

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When I posed this quandary to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the statutory authority that overseas the RCC, a spokesperson said, “Delord is a very experienced sailor who took all the necessary safety precautions available to him” adding “Australia does not seek to recover the cost of search and rescue from survivors.” The Orion’s owner, Sarina Bratton, who has voluntarily offered passengers an undisclosed refund on the Antarctic cruise, was just as nonchalant, telling me “there was never any question in my mind about saving someone’s life at sea.”

One man involved in the rescue who is willing to question the status quo is the Orion’s chief medical officer, Dr. Chris Bulstrode. An emeritus professor in trauma at Oxford University with extensive experience working in Afghanistan, Haiti and other disaster zones, Bulstrode was quick to point out that when Delord invested a few hundred dollars in an EPIRB, he hypocritically put the responsibility of saving his life into the hands of a society whose standards of safety he felt superior to.

“In a society where we are minimizing risk everywhere we go, from the cars we drive, to the planes we fly, to the foods we eat, there will invariably be a group of individuals who want to kick against what they see as restraints — people who believe themselves to be immortal and that nothing will go wrong,” he says. “But in the back part of the brain we refer to as the subconscious mind, they would have to be thinking about what will happen if something goes wrong. When Alain purchased his EPIRB he knew that if something went wrong, people he didn’t know would have to drop everything to save him.”

To be fair, Delord is not the first yachtsman to get his kicks at taxpayers’ expense. In 2008, an Australian warship rescued Frenchman Yann Elies in the Southern Ocean when he broke his leg while competing in the Vendée Globe, an around-the-world solo yacht race that also follows the clipper route. Two other daredevil sailors — Frenchman Thierry Dubois and Briton Tony Bullimore — also had to be saved by the Royal Australian Navy during the 1996 Vendée Globe in an operation that cost somewhere from $6 million to $7 million. It marked the third time Bullimore, dubbed Captain Calamity by the press, had suffered a life-threatening mishap at sea, though it wasn’t his last. In 2010, he had to be rescued again, this time by a French Air Sea Rescue Helicopter when his yacht capsized off Cape Finisterre in the Bay of Biscay.

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Professor Marc Wilson, head of psychology at New Zealand’s Victoria University, agrees that Bullimore and his kind are probably more narcissistic than the rest of us. Yet he is less inclined to chastise them for expecting others to help in times of peril. “The people who do provide support probably aren’t being coerced,” he says. “They have their reasons for their support, some of which will be from the desire to bask in reflected glory. We are also group-based animals — rallying round is what we do, whether the person we rally round is a religious leader, a family member, or a sporting legend. If we couldn’t rely on those around us, or rely on there being people around us when we need it, well, we wouldn’t be human, would we?”

The final moments of Delord’s rescue were coordinated by Orion’s Antarctic expedition leader Don McIntyre. An accomplished yachtsman and adventurer, McIntyre was part of a team that sailed a 7.6-m open whaleboat from Tonga to West Timor in 2010 in a recreation of the ordeal faced by Captain William Bligh of the Mutiny on the Bounty fame. It is but one in a list of risky endeavors that last year won McIntyre the Australian Geographic Society’s highest honor — a gold medal for a “lifetime of adventure.”

His understanding of the maritime law that legally compelled the Orion to rescue Delord softened my opinion on the rescue. “There is a thing called a right-to-die contract,” he explains. “Basically it says to society ‘I am going on a very dangerous adventure, and I am doing so at my own risk as is my right. If I get into trouble, I don’t want you to come rescue me.’ But the reality is that the system doesn’t let you enter into such a contract. You don’t have that option because governments will come and rescue you irrespective of what you want. So we can’t judge Alain for the cost incurred in his rescue. What we can do is look at the precautions he took, whether he took all the necessary gear and did everything he could to minimize his risk and be responsible for his own actions. I believe Alain did take all those steps. He had the training and experience; he had the proper communication tools and all the safety gear. Unfortunately, things just didn’t go his way.”

It appears, in my mind at least, that the jury is still out. When I’m not saving Frenchmen in Antarctica, I spend my holidays riding motorcycles through the back roads of places like Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Palawan in the Philippines. I rank the accomplishment of each mission on the remoteness of my surrounds, with each successive victory spurring me toward even more exotic destinations. I can’t count the number of times I’ve relied on the charity of others after blowing a tire or running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere. But I make it a point of repaying my saviors in cash or kind — something Delord always knew he couldn’t do. At the very least, however, the affable Frenchman appears to have learned an important lesson.

“I left on an adventure to travel around the world in a sailboat unassisted,” he said after emerging from his cabin on the Orion after 20 hours of sleep. “That has now been ruined because I obviously needed assistance. You can try to do things by yourself, but at the end of the day, we all need the help of other people.”

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