Originally created 02/17/99

French sailor saved in heroic ocean rescue



SANTIAGO, Chile -- Her life in peril and her boat destroyed by mountainous waves, a star French sailor was rescued unharmed in the South Pacific on Tuesday by a heroic rival in the solo around-the-world race.

The Chilean navy said Isabelle Autissier was rescued at 9:37 a.m. EST by yachtsman Giovanni Soldini of Italy. She was saved about 24 hours after sending a distress signal.

"The French sailor is now safe and in good condition aboard the Italian yacht Fila," Cmdr. Nilton Duran told The Associated Press by telephone.

Autissier was the overall leader of the 27,000-mile Around Alone race when her 60-foot PRB overturned in fierce weather Monday. The Chilean navy said the 42-year-old Frenchwoman's boat was "completely lost."

"The boat suddenly turned more than 90 degrees, and I could no longer be in the cockpit," Autissier said. "Then it suddenly turned over, and I didn't have time to shut the door."

Autissier sent a mayday and made a brief call to Paris after her boat was capsized by 40 mph winds and waves as high as 40 feet, race director Peter Rachtman said from Auckland, New Zealand.

"Very quickly, the mast snapped into pieces," she said. "When I saw that, I sent the signal because there was nothing else I could do. Then I began to get organized, getting security material together."

With no known commercial or private shipping in the isolated ocean south of Australia, organizers said the fleet represented Autissier's best chance for survival.

Autissier was in second place in the third leg before her boat capsized, trailing Marc Thiercelin by 38 miles. The rescue came 2,070 miles west of Punta Arenas, Chile's southernmost city.

"I calculated that Marc or Giovanni were closest to me, but nevertheless realized that it could take at least 24 hours for them to arrive," Autissier said.

Soldini was 200 miles and at least 10 hours away when he turned south into heavy seas to reach Autissier. Duran said the weather had improved at the time of the rescue and winds had slowed to 29 mph to 31 mph.

"I am heading for PRB," Soldini told the Race Operations Center in Charleston, S.C., by radio before heading to Autissier. "I'm not letting up until I have found Isa."

When Soldini found Autissier's yacht, it was upside down and he didn't see the Frenchwoman, said Jeanne Aichele, director of Charleston Maritime Commission, in Charleston, S.C.

After two or three passes, he threw a hammaer at the hull to wake her up, Aichele said.

"She came out of the hatch, got into a life raft and drifted downwind to Giovanni," she said. "They are now having wine and cheese somewhere on Giovanni's boat."

The Chilean navy kept contact with stations in Hawaii, California and New Zealand during the search and rescue efforts.

Duran said Fila will stay in the race and is expected to reach Uruguay in seven to nine days. The race, which includes a dozen boats, began in Charleston in August and is to end there in the spring.

Two other competitors were heading toward Autissier, but organizers said the nearest boat was at least three days away.

At a briefing before the fleet left Auckland last week, skippers were told to look after each other.