There is a reason why we journalists and sailing enthusiasts often put an adjective in front of the locution “South Seas”: “terrible.” At such low latitudes, if you fall overboard while sailing, you are lost. The water temperature hardly exceeds 7 to 8 degrees. In a very few minutes your body goes into hypothermia: at 28 degrees unconsciousness overtakes, at 24 degrees death. That is, if it does not happen by asphyxiation first, because the strong wind raises water that “mists” and prevents breathing. The terrible South Seas are not forgiving. The case of John Fisher, who fell overboard 1,400 miles west of Cape Horn in the Volvo Ocean Race(reconstruction of the tragedy here), is just the latest in a long list of sailors “fallen in the field.”
THE ONLY MAN “PARDONED” BY THE SOUTH SEAS.
The terrible South Seas have never been forgiving. Except in one case. Only once has a man, who fell into the icy waters of the 52nd parallel, knowing he was facing certain death, been rescued by his crew. A crew of great Italian sailors. It was the 1981/1982 Whitbread, Stage 3 (Auckland to Mar del Plata, Argentina), that man was Paolo Martinoni. And fortunately for him, at the helm of Giorgio Falck’s Rolly Go at that time was the very great Pierre Sicouri.
THE TALE OF THE MAN OVERBOARD…
Martinoni recounts, “We were at latitude 52° south, at night, under spi. The sea was rough. In those days a small genoa was kept even when there was a spinnaker; it was said to stabilize the boat. As I was tying the spi bag to the stanchion, the genoa suddenly changed tack and knocked me out of the boat.
When I saw the sign ‘Yacht Club Costa Smeralda’ on the stern of the boat moving away, I realized what had happened. With the water at seven degrees, you are dead after a few minutes. And until then, no one who had fallen in the South Pacific had ever been fished out alive. I took off my boots and played dead, because the less you move, the less heat you disperse, while waiting for them to come for me. And in the meantime, I was thinking. I was seized with unspeakable sorrow, with the knowledge that shortly thereafter, if they did not come to my rescue, I would pass from life to death.
Fortunately, Pierre Sicouri took the helm, and in seven minutes they managed to pull me up, after passing over me, spotting me once upwind, and allowing themselves to be drifted to get closer to me. They hoisted me aboard, stripped me naked, offered me a cigarette and tea, and made me skip the next watch. After that I was ready to go again. Jepson (Giovanni Verbini, Giorgio Falck’s sailor since the first Guia, ed.), unfailingly on board, confided in me that during the salvage operations he had been locked in his berth praying to St. Silverio, the patron saint of Ponza, his home island, to save me. I promised Jepson that I would go the following year to honor St. Silver on his feast day at Ponza, but because I went there under sail and caught becalms, I arrived at the island the next day“.
… AND ITS SAVIOR
Reading Martinoni’s words, published in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of Sailing, we were reminded that in 1982 the story was also told to us by Pierre Sicouri, in a tear-jerking article. We went to fish it out for you:
“We’re at 52 degrees South, it’s cold and rolling a lot, but spirits are high. Outside the wind has dropped, we are in the eye of the low…Suddenly I hear a terrible scream from Jacopo:
Paul, Paul is at sea! Has fallen into the sea!
…off-deck splash. The total darkness, the flapping sails, the spray washing over me, and the bitter cold give me the measure of the disaster. At the stern two are struggling with one of the lifebuoys but the buoy is caught…so Paul is without a lifebuoy.
I take the helm and Jacopo gives me the previous course and we reverse it 180°. “He was catapulted overboard by the jib sheet.” “Start the engine! Without heating the glow plugs! where is it? Watch with flashes! … I have a tremendous knot in my stomach. We are skirting an immense ravine; we are on the brink of disaster. Of the five men who fell overboard during last Whitbread only one was rescued, and none was rescued at night.
But we have to save Paul.
We are saving him…Out of nowhere comes Paul’s voice: “This way, this way!” It’s a miracle! But the boat is very fast and we can’t stop it. We literally pass over Paul without seeing him…. he is the one who shows us what to do. “Left, puggia, over here, over hereaaa!” .
He is basically saving himself….
we pass by him and finally manage to throw him a life jacket with a flashing light…we have to be quick, at this latitude water survival is 12 minutes…a line and we pull him against the side…thanks to his exceptional physique, he slowly recovers…
I hug him very tightly, I don’t know how to express my gratitude to him for saving his life and my happiness
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