ONE OF THE GREATEST sea-rescue stories ever told must surely be that of Pete Goss, a former British Royal Marine. He rescued a Frenchman, a fellow singlehanded competitor in the 1996 Vendée Globe race around the world. He exhibited such heroism and determination that he was given France’s highest award for gallantry, the Legion d’Honneur. Queen Elizabeth awarded him the Medal of the British Empire, and he was elected Yachtsman of the Year.
The man he rescued was Raphael Dinelli, whose boat sank in a storm more than a thousand miles south of Fremantle, Australia, far down in the frigid Southern Ocean. Goss, who happened to be 160 miles ahead of him, was asked by the race organizers if he could go back and pick up Dinelli from a life raft dropped to him by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
Goss, at the time, was dead downwind, and that wind was blowing over 60 knots. Every half hour or so, Goss’s boat was knocked flat in the water by breaking swells estimated to be about 60 feet high. He was himself fighting to stay alive. But he knew what he had to do. Under storm sails he beat back slowly in atrocious conditions, and with the help of the RAAF, he located Dinelli, who was suffering so much from exposure that he accepted he was probably going to die. “But he never gave up,” said Goss, in his fascinating book, Close to the Wind. “He kept pushing death before him, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.”
Anyone who has been to sea in a sailboat in conditions even half as bad as these will appreciate the difficulty of finding anything as small as a liferaft and then of transferring its occupant onto a boat under sail only. Displaying superb seamanship, Goss luffed up alongside the raft. “I ran forward and threw off the headsail halyard,” said Goss. “Raphael gripped the grabline. Got him!”
They both heaved, and Dinelli was on deck. He lay face down and tried to move, but he was too stiff and cold. “It was hardly surprising— he had spent two days waiting for me to rescue him. I gently turned him over to reveal a nose and two very inflamed eyes surrounded by thick, yellowish wax. A feeble ‘Thank you’ could be heard from inside the immersion suit. All I could see was his eyes and I shall never forget them . . . I dragged him back to the cockpit by his ankles; his feet were agonizingly painful because of the cold, and he couldn’t walk. We worked together to get him under the cockpit overhang.
“It took five minutes to undress him. His hands and feet were in the worst condition: cold, colorless and useless. Skin came away on contact and I wondered if there would be long-term damage. The next step was to get him below through the small hatch, which was difficult to negotiate at the best of times. He was very stiff—it was as though rigor mortis was setting in, and it took a couple of attempts before he tumbled through. Now he was below in my cramped, wet little hell hole.
“ I put a dry set of thermals on him, pulled a woolly hat over his head and eased him into my best sleeping bag. He couldn’t straighten out so I propped him in a sitting position against my kitbag and put a support under his knees.
“Every movement was slow and painful for him . . . I made a very sweet cup of tea in a cyclist’s drinking bottle; I had it on board for just such an occasion as it has a nipple on the top and you can’t spill the contents. I helped Raphael slowly and painfully wrap his frozen hands round it. He took a sip and a look of pleasure lit up a face haggard beyond its 28 years. He told me later that it was as though he had landed in England.”
Goss gradually nursed Dinelli back to health during the 12 days or so it took them to sail back to Australia. Goss was given a time allowance, and rejoined the race. He wasn’t the winner, but he became the public sensation of the race. About 150,000 people were lined up in France when he arrived, cheering for their new hero.
Ø Close to the Wind: An Extraordinary Story of Triumph Over Adversity, by Peter Goss (New York, 1999; Carrol & Graf Publishers).
The real hero is always a hero by mistake: he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.
— Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality
“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave, sir. Pets are not allowed in the dining room.”
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