Bernard Stamm is all smiles after finishing the Transat Jacques Vabre last year, with absolutely no idea of the drama that would befall him and his co-skipper Damien Guillou on the final leg of their return delivery to France. Following the harrowing rescue of Stamm and Guillou the pair returned to sea to recover the remains of Stamm’s lmoca 60, with the bow clearly broken away.

Poujoulat Odyssey
After finishing the Transat Jacques Vabre in Brazil many boats were due to return to Europe by cargo vessel. However, Bernard Stamm, fourth in the race sailing with Philippe Legros on the lmoca 60 Cheminees Poujou/at, designed by Juan K and built by Decision in Switzerland, decided his boat should sail back to France to get a step ahead in his race preparations for 2014.

On 20 December Bernard Stamm left Paris, where he had been tor the Paris boatshow, tor the Azores islands. His intention was to rejig his delivery crew, who had brought the boat from ltajaT. ‘Ewen, Vivien and Ali can now come ashore after a tough upwind delivery from Brazil,’ said Bernard. ‘Only Damien Guillou [a well-known Figaro skipper] remains onboard along with myself tor the rest of the voyage to Brest; we should arrive around Christmas. Our little bet to save time also looks OK right now, since the cargo ship with our friends’ boats has yet to leave ltajaT. .. ‘

On 23 December, now with just Bernard and Damien Guillou on board, Cheminees Poujoulat is running with tour reefs in the main and the storm jib into big seas up to 8m and with a violent gusty wind rarely dropping below 45kt. The Juan K design is just 180nm west of Brest. ‘The sea was big but regular and we were dealing with the gale,’ Bernard would calmly say later.
‘Everything was under control. The boat was doing 12-13kt and was going well. We were both at the chart table when we heard a huge crack. Damien leaped up on deck, first shouting “the mast has come down”. However, he soon saw that the boat itself was broken in front of the daggerboards.

The bow was floating at 45° to the axis of the boat.  

1 immediately closed the watertight bulkheads. Then, just a few moments later, the mast did fall and we set off the EPIRB because we knew that we would have to leave what was left of the boat.’ It was approximately 8:30pm French time, and fully dark.

Sharp rescue
In fact, assistance arrived on the scene rather quickly. ‘We were initially flown over by a plane and then, soon afterwards, by a Sea King helicopter. However, to do a helicopter rescue we’d have had to launch a liferaft away from the hull tor the rescuers ? to pick us up, but we never succeeded in moving away from Cheminees Poujou/at’s hull. The boat’s rapid drift always meant that our raft stayed jammed alongside. And to get upwind of the hull was impossible with the broken mast and a big mess of rigging all flailing about.

‘Finally the rope that tied us to Poujoulattangled itself. The raft became jammed in at the bow where it was rapidly destroyed by the shards of shredded carbon. We had to abandon the remains of the raft for what was left of Cheminees Poujoulat. ..

‘Now we tried to get out the other liferaft but it was too difficult. Then they [the crew of the helicoptef] tried to lower a man onto our deck from the helicopter but it was impossible as he was continually bobbing up and down. Once he came very close to the back of the boat but a second later he was up in the air.

‘Then they told us to jump into the sea in our survival suits. I was the first to jump and I managed to swim about 40m away from the boat but it was still very difficult to make contact with the helicopter’s swimmer. Once the rescuer did reach me but unfortunately he tore off the rope which was my only connection to my boat; I had great difficulty then swimming back to Cheminees Poujou/at. ‘It eventually became clear that rescue by helicopter in those conditions was very complicated and also very dangerous – and in any case the Sea King was soon short of gas and had to fly back to land. Later on a plane dropped several liferafts over us but we never got one. It was really dark, we saw nothing and the sea was pretty bad.

‘Then a cargo ship, the MV Star lsfjord, sailing under a Norwegian flag with a crew from the Philippines, approached our position. It was still night and very black. But she drifted smoothly down to us with the wind. The crew then fired a line across to us but we could not catch it because we could not see it.

‘Meanwhile, the hull of Poujoulat was sinking ever deeper into the water and was now moving round to the bow of the cargo ship and dangerously close to the ship’s large front bulb (fortunately,  she was fully loaded and so did not pitch up and down too much). Now the crew of the ship made another lengthy attempt to reach us. Meanwhile, using the VHF we were asking them to  drop a liferaft because it looked impossible for us to climb onboard in such big waves.

‘They did not hear us and dropped a rope once again, now with a sling knot at the end. This time we caught it and attached ourselves to it -although there was no chance of us simply being lifted off. However, by now the ship’s crew had got a net over the side and, while being thrown about violently, I made a desperate attempt to swim to the net; once I reached it I eventually made it up to the deck with the help of the crew.

‘At that point I became totally focused on the rescue of Damien who was still in the water. They managed to get a lifebuoy to him, helping to pull him across; in fact, he succeeded in reaching the net and climbing onboard more easily than I had. ‘The crew of the ship were very efficient and stayed remarkably calm considering that at any moment our boat was threatening to sink completely. I also remember that during our odyssey the AIS beacons really helped us a lot. Both the crew of the cargo ship and of the helicopter told us that they could continuously and precisely locate us.’

The MV Star lsfjord continued her passage to Rotterdam where she arrived the following day.

Asked about his decision to carry on sailing towards France despite  the forecast storm, Stamm commented: ‘Certainly there was a  lot of wind, but we went into it knowing what to expect.’

Stamm insists that he was not in exceptional conditions  considering what these boats are built for, and has often pushed  harder through worse conditions. He added: ‘Throughout the worst of the storm we sailed slowly at 60 per cent of our polars  to let the bad weather pass ahead. On Sunday [22 December] the wind was still strong but eased to 35-37kt and there was  even a short time with just 27kt.

‘We had a clear outline of the situation and knew what was coming … We knew we would have three or four hours of very strong winds, but these boats are built for that. We regularly see 45-50kt. You don’t prepare for sailing round the world by sailing in Brittany in 15kt of wind. Before the “accident” the boat behaved well. The front had passed.’

Hard to tell
What happened to Cheminees Poujoulat sounds like a catastrophic structural failure of Bernard’s Juan Kouyoumdjian-designed boat not very far from the area of maximum loading, where the canting keel, daggerboards and mast compression loads all come together.
Stamm was also sailing the same boat in the Transat Jacques Vabre race in 2011 when his then new lmoca 60 was holed just above the waterline near the starboard shrouds following a collision with an unidentified object. He is certain that there is no connection between the damage of two years ago (which was repaired under the control of the builder) and the latest incident.

People we asked initially about the how and why told us that unfortunately there will be no issue for investigation without having seen the damaged hull, as everybody thought the boat had sunk and so would never give up any secrets. Stamm also told me that Cheminees Poujoulat had been ultrasound tested in ltajaT -in fact, she has been regularly tested since her launch.

That said, the boat had already experienced a rough upwind trip from Brazil so some damage could easily have started without becoming visible. One thing everybody agrees on is that when Poujoulat broke she was running under storm sails and not sailing so fast that she crashed into the bottom of a big wave.
Michel Desjoyeaux told me that the last Foncia lmoca 60 actually suffered a major breakage just after she was sold to Banque Populaire (which finished second in the last Vendee with Armel Le Cleac’h at the helm). That hull cracked right through the skin and core from the coachroof down to the chine on the waterline. However, Desjoyeaux pointed out that this was not a calculation failure but rather a mistake during the construction of the 60-tooter. The problem was clearly identified and repaired.

Nicolas Groleau, builder of the successful Mach 40 Class40s, believes these big problems inevitably relate to the choice of core: ‘Nomex is simply not a reliable solution tor these offshore racing boats.’ He also adds that ‘another problem is that the structural coefficients are quite different from one designer /engineer to another. But ultimately it the hull sandwich is too light then the primary structure will eventually suffer.’
Bertrand Cardis himself could not give any reason for Poujou/afs dramatic failure. However, during our talk the Swiss builder pointed out that ‘there are very large compartments in the front half of ! the boat, and to facilitate the movement of sails there are no bulkheads’. Cardis also regrets that there is no longer a Kevlar outer skin on these boats to offer some protection to the carbon;. Nomex sandwich in the event of a collision – all in the name of saving weight.

‘Two years ago we discovered that the breakage on Poujoulat was due to a collision.’ Bertrand added firmly: ‘By contrast, the new Volvo 65s are much stronger than the lmoca 60s.’ Of course if you are building oceanic one-designs then you will make them strong, very strong.

The wanderer returns
11th January, nearly three weeks after Cheminees Poujou/at was abandoned by her crew because she was sinking, the wreck was located by a French Customs aircraft approximately 14nm north of the Vierge Island in Finistere. The next morning Bernard, Philippe Legros and Ewen Le Cleac’h leave !’Aber Wrac’h on a Societe Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer powerboat (the national salvage service) to find the wreck of the lmoca 60 and tow it back in.

The sight that greeted Bernard was not very different from his last images of his boat when he was rescued three weeks earlier. Only the stern was above the surface with the nose of the hull bobbing around in front. All the rest of the boat was submerged. Interestingly, the keel was still there – the likely reason why the drifting wreck had stayed the right way up.

Altogether the tow to I’ Aber Wrac’h lasted 12 hours; now Cheminees Poujoulat is at least no longer a hazard to navigation. ‘I very much hope that a careful investigation of the wreckage can give us some answers why the boat broke in two,’ concluded the Swiss skipper, hoping that something positive can come out of the discovery of his lost 60-footer. Of course, the whole lmoca community is very interested in the  investigations into what has survived from the powerful and fast Poujou/at. .. owned by Swiss friends of Bernard.

Patrice Carpentier