Nova Scotia

Rescue launched in stormy mid-Atlantic for vessels in sailing race

Multiple Canadian Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Air Force assets are engaged in rescue efforts for multiple sailing vessels in distress off the Atlantic coast.

3 vessels issued distress calls early Friday amid hurricane-force winds and high seas

A CC-130 Hercules is among the assets being sent to help sailing vessels in distress off the Atlantic coast. (Cpl. Vincent Carbonneau/Canadian Press)

A rescue mission was launched Friday in the mid-Atlantic after vessels involved in a sailing race ran into trouble amid high seas and hurricane-force winds.

Joint Task Force Atlantic in Halifax said it was responding to distress calls from three vessels involved in the transatlantic race between the U.K. and Rhode Island.

Lt. Len Hickey of the Royal Canadian Navy said emergency beacons from the boats went off shortly after midnight. One of the sailboats lost its mast and the other two suffered damage to their hulls and rigging.

None of the vessels was longer than 15 metres, said Hickey.

No Canadians on boats

One of the boats had two sailors on board, while the other two each had one sailor. Hickey said the nationalities of the sailors were not being released at this time, but that none was Canadian.

They were approximately 1,600 kilometres east of Newfoundland as of mid-afternoon Friday.

Weather conditions for the area were reported as stormy with hurricane-force winds between 90 and 130 km/h and seas of 10 to 15 metres.

"Conditions in the area remain fairly difficult," said Hickey.

Neil Payter, Maria Wilkinson's partner, is in the race, but not on one of the stricken boats. He set off from the U.K. about May 29 for the 28-day journey.

Wilkinson has been in touch with him by text. "He's fine. He's more up north than the other guys. He was getting 40 knots. He's been battered for about 12 hours," she told CBC News in a phone call from England. 

He deployed a sea anchor to slow his boat as it crossed "great big, high seas," she said. He hasn't been able to check his vessel for damage, but it is sailing and he's not hurt. 

"The next bit is to try and miss that next low that's coming in and obviously the icebergs," she said.

Payter is a yacht master instructor and has done smaller races in the past. "He's always wanted to do this race, but God — it's horrific what's happened today."

He expects to finish the race.

Nor'easter-like winds

CBC meteorologist Kalin Mitchell said satellite images show some of the winds near the sailboats are "on par with some of our strongest winter nor'easters."

A map showing the location of the vessels participating in the race as of 1:31 ET on June 9. (Royal Western Yacht Club.)

The Royal Canadian Air Force dispatched multiple aircraft to the scene, including a CC-130 Hercules and a CP-140 Aurora from 14 Wing Greenwood in Nova Scotia.

HMCS Charlottetown was also heading to the area, along with the Canadian Coast Guard vessels Pearkes and Cygnus and two civilian tankers. Hickey said the ships were expected to be on scene around noon Saturday.

Winds will ease Saturday

Mitchell said the winds and waves will begin to ease as the storm moves northeast. By Saturday morning at 8 a.m., he said, the area where the boats are will have winds between 40 and 60 km/h, with waves between 3½ metres and six metres tall. 

The vessels were participating in the Royal Western Yacht Club's original single-handed and two-handed transatlantic races between the port city of Plymouth in southwest England and Newport, R.I.

The races have been a tradition for decades. The first single-handed race was in 1960 and the event now happens every four years. 

'Man against the sea'

Halifax sailor Mark MacNeil's friend Christian Chalandre of France is one of the participants in this year's race.

"Everyone who gets involved knows that this is the kind of weather they have to be prepared to face," he said. 

​Chalandre is competing in a 10.3-metre or 34-foot boat that's 46 years old, racing in a class where the vessels are a similar size.

"He has lots of experience as most of them do and he has a good strong old boat, so in fact, he should be doing quite well, I would think," MacNeil said.

MacNeil, who has sailed solo across the Atlantic, said boats competing in large races are "very well equipped" with satellite phones and gear to communicate with the shore and with each other.  

"It's still one man against the sea and they'd be pretty lonely," he said. 

With files from Blair Rhodes and Tom Murphy