On an overcast morning in late May, 21 yachts set sail from Plymouth, England to compete in the Original Single-handed Transatlantic Race (OSTAR) and Two-handed Transatlantic Race (TWOSTAR) and be the first to reach Newport, Rhode Island.
Garmin-sponsored Italian sailor Michele Zambelli was among the solo skippers competing in the OSTAR, and on the 13th day of the race, Zambelli faced an unexpected challenge. Around 3:30 a.m. UTC (11:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time) his yacht, the Illumia 12, was sailing fast and upwind at eight to nine knots. Zambelli was awake and pondering whether he should reduce the mainsail or keep going with the whole mainsail when the yacht suddenly stopped.
The impact made everything not secured on the boat fall into disarray. The vessel had struck something and broken its keel. Zambelli was not injured, and his first thought was that he was losing time in the regatta. Then the Illumia 12 began taking on water. At that moment, he knew his race was finished. He needed to act then to save his life.
He ran to take down the yacht’s sails. “Knee-deep water, frozen and dark. I walked inside the water, and I grabbed my inReach,” Zambelli explained. “I put it in charge to take advantage of my last moments of power on board, ready to bring it with me on the life raft. Then I launched the SOS.” It was around midnight local time when Zambelli triggered an SOS on his inReach Explorer+.
Within minutes, he was in contact with the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) to communicate his need for an urgent rescue before his yacht sank in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.
“In absolute darkness, to see the light of that [message received]moved me,” Zambelli said. “They asked me how many people were on board and if there were any injured, in Italian! We exchanged some information, and then they kept me in touch with the Canadian search and rescue, which asked me to stay listening to [VHF radio] channel 16 to wait for the first airplane.”
Zambelli’s SOS message from the inReach provided the IERCC with the exact location of the Illumia 12, which was approximately 340 nautical miles (630 kilometers) southeast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Moments after receiving the SOS, the IERCC contacted the Halifax Joint Rescue Coordination Centre—the responsible entity for maritime search and rescue response in the region—which dispatched a Royal Canadian Air Force CC-130 Hercules aircraft, CH-149 Cormorant helicopter, and crew to conduct the rescue.
While he waited for the aircraft to arrive, Zambelli used his inReach to send text messages to his friends and family to let them know he was okay and awaiting rescue. Back on land in Italy, Zambelli’s followers were concerned. They had been watching his progress and inReach track points displayed on his MapShare page and had noticed that he had stopped. “I spent the time trying to reduce the entry of water, wet and in the cold,” he said. “I managed to keep in touch with the land thanks to inReach. For me it was essential and encouraging. I never lost confidence.”
The rescue team aircraft arrived around daybreak. The Hercules crew communicated with Zambelli via radio and asked him to jump from the Illumia 12 onto his life raft so that the line lowering the Canadian rescuer down from the helicopter to him wouldn’t become tangled in the yacht’s mast.
“I did it,” Zambelli said. “I trusted them, and I threw myself on the raft.” He heard the helicopter before he saw it overhead. “The side door of the helicopter opened, and a great man came out, with huge flippers and a mask that hid a long beard. He had big blue eyes. I will never forget him. He went down to the water, and in that moment I felt no longer alone.”
The sea that day was rough with two-meter waves and wind blowing over 25 knots. Still, the Canadian rescuer held on to Zambelli and they were pulled to safety. The Canadian crew shared video of the rescue:
John Lewis, director of the OSTAR and TWOSTAR competition, told the CBC that he found the response to the emergency was “quite remarkable. Within six hours he’d been rescued and was safe.”
Zambelli was disappointed that he could not finish the race and that he lost his vessel, but he was happy to be alive and thankful to the Canadian crew who rescued him.
“The Canadian rescue guys were special. They made me feel at home both in the helicopter and at the time of the rescue. From now on I will always sail with my inReach, which is essential to sail safely and to stay in touch with the steady land! You can receive weather information and updates that can turn your cruise or regatta into something much more serene and secure.”
Many thanks to the brave Canadian rescue team who brought Michele Zambelli to shore safely. Garmin is proud to sponsor Zambelli, and we look forward to following his next race.