Montreal sailor recounts U.S. navy rescue at sea off Bahamas

A Montreal sailor whose Christmas Eve rescue by a U.S. navy research ship was caught on video says he’s lucky to be alive after spending five days adrift off the coast of Bahamas.

Éric Valois overcomes pirates from Haiti, punctured hull and gale-force winds, rescued just as sailboat sinks

Amateur video shot by the crew of a U.S. navy ship shows the rescue of Montreal sailor Éric Valois. Source: Military Sealift Command/USNS Pathfinder 4:25

A Montreal sailor whose Christmas Eve rescue by a U.S. navy research ship was caught on video says he's lucky to be alive after spending five days adrift off the coast of Bahamas.

Éric Valois was no stranger to the waters around the Bahamas, having navigated them for 7½ years as a sailboat tour operator.

However, on a solo trip in December, almost everything that could go wrong did.

Pirates and a broken mast

In early December, three pirates from Haiti tried to board his 14-metre sailboat Flamboyant but he managed to fend them off.

"It was pretty easy — they weren't very well equipped, they didn't have firearms, so I was able to get away," he said.

A few days later, Valois lost his mast, puncturing his boat's hull in the incident. That's when he discovered his backup engine wasn't functioning, either.

Valois called his boat home and lost most of his possessions when it sank. (Éric Valois)

Distress call

For five days, without a sail nor a working engine, the sailor fought to keep the pumps working and his boat afloat, but fatigue eventually set in.

By then adrift in high seas, Valois sent out a number of distress calls and prepared to abandon his sinking sailboat for a life raft.

"I don't think my chances of survival were very good if I had abandoned the sailboat," he said.

A number of boats in the area ignored his distress call — despite maritime laws that oblige them to help, Valois said.

On Dec. 24, with waves pitching at five metres and winds gusting at 70 kilometres an hour, a 100-metre U.S. naval oceanographic survey ship, the USNS Pathfinder, found Valois and plucked him from the roiling sea just as his boat sank.

"We immediately started heading that way for assistance [after receiving the distress call] as there is an old law of the sea to render assistance to a mariner in distress," said Capt. Tom Pearse-Drance of the USNS Pathfinder told Radio-Canada. 

"My entire crew sprung into action ... I'm very blessed to have an extremely competent and hard-working crew to bring this to a safe and happy conclusion," said Pearse-Drance. 

Wind and seas were near gale force and the full moon on choppy seas made it harder to see Valois's boat, he said.

The entire rescue took about three hours.

"It was more or less easy," Valois said. "When I got on board, they all hugged me. They seemed to be as happy to have saved me as I was."

A member of the crew on the USNS Pathfinder caught part of Valois's rescue on video:

Christmas on the high seas

Valois found himself in the middle of the ship's Christmas party, complete with the captain dressed as Santa Claus.

The sailor was even given a present – an official USNS Pathfinder shirt.

Valois is now back in Montreal to rest and regroup.

"[My boat] was my livelihood, my house, so I lost everything. But I'm lucky to be alive," he said.

"We only have one life to live, and I plan to make the most of it."

The USNS Pathfinder is an oceanographic survey ship. Capt. Tom Pearse-Drance said the ship's high-manoeuvrability helped in the rescue effort. (U.S. navy / Military Sealift Command)

With files from Radio-Canada's Bahador Zabihiyan


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