Last week during the dangerous 605-mile Fastnet yacht race, Drum of England, a $1.6 million racing vessel co-owned by rock star Simon Le Bon, overturned when its 14-foot keel snapped off near the Cornish village of Portscatho. Le Bon and five others were huddled below deck for 20 minutes, with only a pocket of air standing between them and a watery grave. Two days later, from the warmth and safety of the Falmouth Hotel in Falmouth, Le Bon told correspondent Laura Sanderson Healy about what it’s like to be young, rich and face to face with death.
We were very close to dying, no two ways about it. We were all very, very, very, very scared indeed.
We had been tacking along, around nine and a half knots, and had just passed the most beautiful part of the Cornish coast, the Manacles. I’d just come off a four-hour watch working the main sheet—bringing it in, letting it out—and moving the traveler. I had gone below deck and was just falling asleep, just on the edge, when the boat turned over.
Rick, who was asleep above me, fell out of his bunk, and I thought, “Oh, there’s Rick; why is he lying there?” Then I was thrown out of the bunk. I heard a couple of bangs, and then the boat went over sideways. The bastard went over sideways! I couldn’t believe it. At first, I thought we’d tacked, but we couldn’t have tacked. Then I thought we’d broached, but we were sailing into the wind, and you don’t broach when you are sailing into the wind. And then I thought, “Goddam it, this thing is still going over.”
Rick said, “Come on,” and he moved quickly toward the hatch. At that moment, two heavy sails—which take six men to lift—fell on us. We humped and shunted our way along underneath, kneeling. I’ve got bruises all over my legs. Suddenly I saw this patch of blue, and then we realized, “God, the boat’s upside down!” We were so disoriented. We had started crawling up before we realized we had turned turtle.
It was bloody frightening. What a thing to happen. It didn’t make sense to us that the boat had turned upside down. It was horrible, messy and smelly in there. Foul. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have had to spend the night there. Pretty awful—and we were down there only 20 minutes, though we didn’t have any sense of time.
We lifted a mainsail off Pascal, a French sailor. He was shouting, “I’m drowning.” You just do what you’ve got to do. It was a time for doing, getting things done. Not thinking. It wasn’t until we felt that we were a little bit safer, that nobody had his life in immediate danger, that we could work out what kind of situation we were in, what the problem was and how to deal with it.
There was no panic, just very clear thinking. We realized at that time we would be much safer staying inside the hull and not trying to get out. We dealt with it. That was all. Simple as that. If anybody had panicked, he probably wouldn’t be alive. You subconsciously know that panicking will make you do stupid things, and that’s the way you are going to die. There was no place for panic. The human machine is designed to react in moments of extreme stress. It sees that one acts logically. That instinct works very well with us. In my head I just said, “Look out for brother Jonny. Look after all the guys, but especially Jonny.” When I first got to the hatch, he was there. But he then decided to go for it, to get out through the hatch by swimming down and out and up. After that, I didn’t know where he was—on or off the boat. I imagined that he and the others had gotten out and were sitting on the hull.
Three minutes after the boat went down, an automatic radio beacon, activated by the sea water, went on. While we waited for help, we found life jackets. We tried to kick out as many as we could to the people up top. The frogman who came to pull us out scared me at first. With the goggles and all, he didn’t look like a human being—until he spoke with a Manchester accent and instructed us quite simply. He had brought me a life jacket with a breathing tube on it, and said, “You can breathe through this.” But it increased my buoyancy so that I couldn’t get down. I had to let go of the life jacket. When the others saw what was happening, they pulled it out of my hand, so I had to take one deep breath of air. Haven’t you ever sat through a Tarzan film and watched him swimming underwater and actually held your breath to see if you could hold it as long as he could? I did that, and it was like doing that but for real, you know?
It was difficult because you had to get through all these ropes and the lifeline around the boat. That was the hardest thing. Rigging was hanging down from the deck. All the lines were trailing, just like a Portuguese man-of-war, a big jellyfish with all those things, floating. That’s what it looked like. The wires and ropes were like trying to fight through spaghetti.
The diver pulled me down, and I pushed off from the deck. When I came out, I was on my back and the water was totally up my nose. I’m not a brilliant swimmer, but I am a strong swimmer. My right thermal legging got caught around the lifeline, but I pulled it free and came up toward the surface. I started to breathe too early but decided at the last minute, “No, don’t do it yet; there’s still water there.”
On reaching land, the first thing I did was trod in a cow pad, a big brown pancake. And do you know what? It made me so happy. It was warm. It squashed up through my toes! They had dropped us in a cow field in Portscatho, and when I got out of the helicopter, I put my foot straight down in the cow pad. I was running at the same time, but I took it with me in between my toes. It was just a funny feeling because I thought, “God, how horrible!” But it felt so nice and warm—and it signified land as well.
It was a funny thing. I love the sea, but, by their nature, people are land animals. We dare go out there, but like outer space, it’s not our natural environment. And I love the land. You come back to dry land and go, “Ummmmmmm!”
After we were rescued, we all went to a farmhouse where they wrapped blankets around us, God bless their” cotton socks. And the kids kept us happy. Lots of kids in the house making us laugh. You should have seen the state of shock we were in. The looks on our faces were ones of shock and horror, but also of happiness to be alive.
People criticize my involvement in a dangerous sport, but I’ve got nothing to answer to. I know what I’m doing. I know why I am doing it. It’s as simple as that. I’m not a person who gives a damn that much about what other people say. It doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do. You can’t spend your life explaining to everybody.