Nova Scotia

Rescuer 'like a brother' for Italian sailor plucked from the Atlantic by helicopter

The Italian skipper of a racing yacht told the harrowing story of his last hours on a boat filling with water and being pulled out of the sea by a rescue helicopter.

Michele Zambelli spent a cold, lonely night waiting for rescue as his boat filled with water

Italian sailor Michele Zambelli is now in St. John's. (Paul Gibbins Photography/Royal Western Yacht Club)

The Italian skipper of a racing yacht who was rescued by helicopter 350 nautical miles (650 kilometres) southeast of Newfoundland and Labrador says he's "tranquillo" now that he's back on land.

Michele Zambelli, 26, was competing in a transatlantic race when his nine-metre sailboat, the Illumia 12, ran into trouble.

Zambelli said he's not sure exactly what happened, but he suspects something collided with his boat and broke the keel.

He knew he was in real trouble when the Illumia 12 started taking on water on Saturday night.

"When I look at my boat completely full of water inside ... I can't stay inside because inside only water," Zambelli said from his hotel room in St. John's. "Finally you say, 'Yes, it's finished. I need to save my life now.'"

Call for help

It was around midnight that Zambelli set off his emergency beacon and tuned his emergency radio to the international distress frequency, channel 16.

When he got an answer on the radio, he was momentarily relieved.

"You think, 'I'm not alone now. I'm not lonely. Someone know where I am and is here with me.' … But when you're in the boat in the night, it is very cold, it is not easy," he said. "You are afraid, you are very afraid."

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax dispatched a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter and a CC-130 Hercules from Gander, N.L., to help. The Cormorant had to stop at the Sea Rose offshore oil platform to refuel on the way.

'You are lonely in the sea'

For the next few hours, Zambelli waited in the dark, watching his boat fill with water, hoping to see the lights of the airplane and helicopter that would signal his rescue.

That moment came after dawn when the plane and helicopter arrived on scene.

Zambelli was rescued by Canadian crews after the keel of his nine-metre sailboat, the Illumia 12, broke. (Paul Gibbins Photography/Royal Western Yacht Club)

Zambelli said he was "little bit of afraid" when he was told to exit his boat and jump onto his life raft.

"You are lonely in the sea, with your little orange boat and the big airplane," he said.

Maj. Rhonda Stevens of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax said the Cormorant's crew of five would have needed Zambelli to get out of his boat so that the rope wouldn't get tangled in the mast.

'He look at you in the eyes and you touch'

Soon after, a rescuer was lowered from the helicopter by rope onto his lifeboat.

"This is a moment very, very important because now you are very not lonely, now you are with this guy," Zambelli said. "He look at you in the eyes and you touch.… He give you a system for go up, finally, 3,2,1 bam."

Zambelli was lifted into the air by a rope attached to a harness.

That moment was "a little bit crazy because you are flying," he said. "The water around you is all white. ... Finally, you close the eyes and someone [takes your] body and give in the helicopter and after close the door and finally it's finished."

The end of the Illumia 12

Zambelli said once he knew he was safe, he looked out of the helicopter at the Illumia 12.

"Your heart is broken. … That's the last time I see my boat," he said. "Today is a wonderful life. But … it stay for my life, this last image of my boat with the water inside."

Stevens said it's likely the Illumia 12 would have sunk within a few hours.

The Illumia 12 was damaged during a transatlantic race and likely sank on June 11, 2017. (Paul Gibbins Photography/Royal Western Yacht Club)

Zambelli said the rescue technician who was lowered to the sea to rescue him was "very, very incredible."

"What a spirit of … I don't know, like a brother," he said.

Stevens said the rescue crew were happy to help, as they do in about 2,500 cases each year.

"It's very rewarding when the rescues are successful, especially when they're this challenging offshore," she said. "They're very elated of course when the results are positive."

Warm welcome in St. John's

Zambelli received a warm welcome on the ground in St. John's, as the police took him on a tour of the city so he could buy some clothing and shoes for his trip back to Italy on Monday.

Michele Zambelli, 26, completed his first transatlantic trip when he was just 19. (Paul Gibbins Photography/Royal Western Yacht Club)

He said after spending two weeks on a sailboat by himself, he was glad to have company.

"When you come back from a big sailing many day you are lonely. When you come back, it's like a new life. If you eat something good, it's incredible, like the first time you eat in your life, no? You are like a child. So now I'm happy for all and I discover a new city, a new world, the Canada."

4 other distress calls

John Lewis, the race's director, was notified when the Illumia 12's emergency beacon was triggered at midnight AT. 

The response time was "quite remarkable. Within six hours he'd been rescued and was safe," Lewis said. 

On Saturday, five people on three different boats were rescued after they sent out distress signals during a storm that caused high seas and hurricane-strength winds.

The boats encountered hurricane-force winds between 90 and 130 km/h and seas of 10 to 15 metres.

The oil and gas supply ship the Thor Magni rescued two sailors Saturday. They were about 460 kilometres east of St. John's. (Joint Task Force Atlantic)

Three boats sent out distress calls on Friday and a fourth vessel ran into trouble on Saturday. 

Zambelli said he avoided the worst of the storm by heading north around it.

Joint Task Force Atlantic was monitoring another sailboat that had called for help initially as it was heading back to the Azores on its own Saturday. 

8 boats still racing

The boats carrying one or two sailors each, were sailing from Plymouth, England, to Newport, Rhode Island, as part of the Royal Western Yacht Club's single-handed and two-handed transatlantic race. 

The eight remaining sailboats are still competing, Lewis said, with the first expected in Newport on Tuesday. 

He said he's been in contact with the crews. 

British sailor Mervyn Wheatley was taken abroad the Queen Mary 2, which is now headed for Halifax. (Dave Ashley/Facebook)

"They've managed extremely well," he said Sunday.

"These are seasoned yachtsmen and they expect hard conditions and the conditions have been extremely hard. They're just now getting on with the task." 

'Rescued in a bit of style'

He called the efforts of the Canadian Coast Guard and the rescue teams "absolutely magnificent," adding that race conditions were the poorest they've been in about 40 years. 

Lewis's longtime friend Mervyn Wheatley was one of the sailors rescued Saturday. It was the 73-year-old British sailor's fifth time participating in the race. 

He is now aboard the U.K. ocean liner Queen Mary 2 after the ship's rescue boats picked him up. 

"All I can say is if you need to be rescued in a bit of style, then I guess the Queen Mary is the boat to be rescued by," said Lewis. 

The Queen Mary is expected to arrive in Halifax Tuesday.

It was the fifth time Mervyn Wheatley was competing in the transatlantic race. (Paul Gibbins Photography/Royal Western Yacht Club)