This short story covers true events that took place on the night of 20 January 2013. I was a flight crew member on board a Gulfstream G550 chartered by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to assist in the search for French solo yachtsman, Alain Delord, who had abandoned his sinking vessel some 800 kilometres south of Hobart, Tasmania. The original story was written shortly after but I have updated it for this blog. Links to further information of the event can be found below.
As we descend into the pitch black of night, the infrared camera image is grainy and streaked with rain. Strobe lights, flashing on the wingtips, reflect off the thick clouds adding to the eerie feeling of being trapped inside a box with invisible sides. I strain my eyes through the cockpit side window, searching for any definition in the outside world. A change in texture, then a white cap, the ocean finally emerges from the darkness. It looks cold and menacing. The infrared picture on the screen in front of me begins to sharpen as we break out of the lowest layer of cloud. The murky picture offers no salvation from the uncomfortable feeling of being somewhere we shouldn’t. I continue to stare into the darkness; was that a light? No, just another whitecap. My eyes play tricks on me as everything appears as nothing and something at the same time. I reach up and turn off the strobe lights, which have become a distraction, and continue to stare into the hazy murk searching for something that doesn’t belong.
The radio comes alive with the insistent warbling of an emergency locator beacon. We are close, very close. There! A flashing light, or are my straining eyes deceiving me? There it is again, and another one, there are three, no four! A line of flashing markers, dropped by a rescue aircraft the day before, form an arrow pointing to the stranded sailor. My colleague quickly marks the position in the navigation computer and begins transmitting into the darkness.
“Alain, aircraft calling. Alain, aircraft calling, do you read?”
A fuzz of static, then nothing. He repeats the message, the waves race across the windshield, the beacon drones on. Then, the static evens out and a distant, accented voice replies.
“Yes, yes, I am here!”
A wave of euphoria momentarily overcomes me with emotion. We laugh and cheer as the noise of the pulsing beacon fades. We are not alone out here, and floating somewhere below in his fragile life raft, neither is Alain.
This is our first Search and Rescue mission and we are finding our way cautiously. Flying only a thousand feet above the tormented Southern Ocean in the dead of night is not our normal routine. Yet, our Gulfstream G550 aircraft is surprisingly well suited to this role. Sophisticated avionics allow us to fly a continuous orbit over the lonely life raft despite the wind blowing hard from the southwest at over 150 kilometres an hour. We communicate with Alain below us over the VHF radio, with Brisbane Oceanic Control thousands of miles away using the HF radio, and with the Rescue Coordination Centre in Canberra by satellite phone. A careful symphony is orchestrated between the life raft, our aircraft and the many people who monitor the situation anxiously with professional concern.
As the hours of darkness tick by we maintain our lookout. Updating the position of the life raft by searching for the drone of the beacon as it drifts across the sea and keeping up to date with Alain’s condition. He is remarkably upbeat considering the perilous situation he is in, but of course he is a salty fellow. He has been alone at sea for many months and this voyage is just the most recent of many he has made across the oceans of the world. Behind me, a french interpreter gets into the swing of things and it is clear from Alain’s voice that communicating in his native tongue has lifted his spirits. The conversation flows so quickly that we have to interrupt the interpreter to ask what he is saying in order to relay the information to the rescue centre. He knows help is on the way, he is hanging on by an invisible thread connecting us to him and the rescue vessel steaming northward from Antartica.
High above the clouds, in the dead of night, the Aurora Australis illuminates the sky in jagged, pulsing waves of green and red. It is an ironic yet remarkable sight that contrasts starkly with the violent sea below. Eventually the sky begins to lighten and we descend, hoping to make a visual sighting of the life raft. The sky is clear in the early dawn light except for a thin layer of cloud positioned precisely the over the area we estimate the life raft to be. From ten thousand feet the ocean looks calm and I feel confident that with just a little bit more light I’ll be able to spot the bright orange raft amidst the placid waves. As we descend further the sea begins to change. The waves grow, the troughs between them deepen and white caps that were invisible from high above appear in every direction. The ocean holds onto its tormented rage like a grudge. Somewhere down there is Alain, rising and falling among the peaks and troughs, holding on, hoping for salvation.
As we pass beneath the low lying cloud layer, the light fades a little but remains bright enough to allow a scan of the endless waves. I expect the life raft to leap out at any moment, an orange marker obvious against the cold, grey sea. The locator beacon begins to pulse in my headset, my eyes scan the ocean in front and to the side but all I see is wave after wave disappearing into the hazy dawn. The beacon fades, we turn the aircraft around, descend a little and search again. Minutes pass as we scribe a grid like pattern over the ocean. It is impossible to judge our search pattern over the featureless ocean by sight so we turn again to our cockpit displays. We can easily see where we are relative to the approximate position of the life raft, and with a little mental arithmetic and some imagination, we narrow in on Alain’s location.
“I see it, no, wait. Yes! I think that’s it!”
A tiny orange speck flashes by then, as quickly as it appeared, the orange life raft is gone. We fix the position and return for another pass. We catch another glimpse of the impossibly small orange speck against the turbulent sea as our interpreter confirms with Alain that he can see us fly by. Elation returns, somehow we have found this orange needle in a watery haystack and I am shocked at how difficult it was to see, we were lucky to spot it at all. We try to locate the life raft several more times over the next few hours but are unable to make a visual sighting again although we are fairly sure of the position from the pulsing of the emergency beacon and Alain’s eager calls from below.
Eventually, our fuel runs low and adrenalin gives way to creeping exhaustion. We are relieved by another aircraft and make a final turn toward Hobart. During the hour long flight to the nearest land, even though I know rescue is imminent, I can’t help but despair for Alain. Then it occurs to me, floating alone on that inhospitable, freezing ocean, miles remote from civilisation, the purpose of our orbiting above the lonely raft and its desperate occupant was not really to relay messages, although that was of great importance. No, our real mission was to give Alain hope, because even though he could not see us during those long hours of darkness, he knew we were there.