Industry » Features » Crisis at Sea off the Cote d’Azur

Crisis at Sea off the Cote d’Azur

Sauveteurs en Mer 140

It happened recently near Cannes, just a mile or so to seaward, and the general public knew nothing about it.

A superyacht was involved in three MOB incidents, a fire broke out on board, SNSM lifeboats were scrambled to assist, and a burns victim was airlifted to shore by a naval helicopter. A shocking cover-up by the yachting industry? Local news media deliberately excluded? 

Actually, it was all part of a highly coordinated training exercise which provided valuable lessons and experience for all parties involved. 

Background to a Full-Scale Search & Rescue Exercise

Much credit is due to the captain of the 40m Sunseeker motor yacht who conceived the idea. After a winter lay-over period with a reduced number of crew, Captain Jean-Maxime Berthet was looking for a way to train his new seasonal crew and stimulate the permanent crew, beyond the usual repetitive drills. He already had experience of joint exercises with the local fire brigade, which both the crew and the firemen found very useful.

Looking for something more challenging, he contacted CROSS MED (Centre Regional Operationnel de Surveillance et de Sauvetage) to explore the idea of a more realistic drill at sea, possibly involving other services. As luck would have it, CROSS MED had engaged new personnel to serve as watchkeepers along the Cote d’Azur, and they welcomed the opportunity to involve them in a training exercise with a superyacht. 

Sunseeker crane 600The 40m Sunseeker superyacht which participated courtesy of the owner

There was further serendipity when Jean contacted the Cannes SNSM lifeboat crew to ask if they would participate to give the yacht’s crew experience in dealing with French-speaking coordinators. The SNSM receives a lot of support from some of the yachts based in the South of France, in terms of cash donations, equipment, and voluntary maintenance work by yacht engineers and, accordingly, they were very keen to participate. 

However, formal crew training is beyond the remit of SNSM so they rarely have the chance to exercise with the larger yachts. To bridge the gap, Jon Usher turned to another stalwart supporter, John Wyborn of Bluewater, who jumped at the opportunity to deliver complementary training and also obtain video footage for future classroom use. 

Coincidentally, several SNSM lifeboats had recently been carrying out trials with another of their supporters, MConnected, which develops maritime tracker units for yachts and tenders as well as individuals and MOB. As plans for a full-scale recue exercise began to take shape, naturally MConnected’s CEO Pete Johnson leapt at a rare opportunity to live test their units as part of the operation. 

John and Jon 600The final part in the puzzle came out of SNSM’s relationship with Captain Thierry Rossignol, a towering figure in the French and European maritime worlds. Thierry was eager to involve a large yacht in an exercise between CROSS MED and the local rescue services, especially with SNSM’s participation. At the same time Jean’s greatest ambition was to involve a helicopter in the exercise and, with his connections at the Navy in Toulon, Thierry was the man to make it happen.  

Remarkably, despite the scale of the planned exercise, everything came together in under four weeks. Once Jean was able to present a detailed plan to Sunseeker Superyacht Management and of course the owner of the yacht, both confirmed their support and the project could go ahead. 

In preparation for the exercise Bluewater provided onboard work-up training for the yacht crew, and donated some liferafts, immersion suits and a smoke generator for use on the day. Debbie Small of Marine Medical Antibes also volunteered to check the yacht’s medical kit, provide basic medical training and rehearse the crew in the correct response to rescue events. 

Coordinated Rescue at Sea

On the morning of Thursday 13th April the yacht left Cannes bound for a rendezvous off the Cap d’Antibes, where Bluewater’s training yacht LORD NELSON was waiting, along with PICCOLO and KITOU, carrying observers and camera crews. 

Shortly after rounding the Cap d’Antibes the first of the planned series of incidents occurred. MConnected’s CEO Pete Johnson hurled himself over the side of the yacht while she was proceeding on passage, creating an instant MOB situation. 

Pete in water 600In short order the alarm was raised verbally, the yacht began to turn and the spotter who had seen Pete’s fall maintained visual contact by using the tried-and-tested technique of constantly pointing and looking at the person in the water.

As the yacht closed on him, Pete’s MOB tracker was being monitored on a tablet on the yacht’s bridge while a rescue swimmer kitted up. This combination of a fast turn, manual spotting and electronic tracking led to a quick recovery by the rescue swimmer.   

Within minutes of recovery the victim was back in the water needing to be rescued again, this time using the yacht’s rescue tender and a Jason’s cradle. 

It’s worth noting that the yacht’s submersible swim platform made the recovery operation much easier than it would have been with a traditional fixed platform. 

Next, white smoke pouring from the partly opened garage door provided the backdrop to an Abandon Ship drill, with the crew donning lifejackets and making a dry entry into an inflated liferaft from the swim platform.

The exercise was repeated, but this time from the water after the upturned raft had been righted by one of the strongest crew members. It was only just big enough to hold all the crew and with a light chop on the sea, being enclosed for just a few minutes would have given them a degree of realism. 

Crew and liferaft 600Picking up the Pace with a Few Surprises 

The morning’s exercises had mostly focused on the yacht, with the crew responding within their own sphere. In the afternoon the pace picked up, with demands on the yacht crew intensifying as onboard incidents cascaded and external actors entered the scene. 

The opening scenario began when it was noticed that during transit across the Rade de Cannes a guest appeared to have gone missing. A quick search confirmed that the missing person was not onboard. The captain alerted CROSS MED while performing a Williamson turn, returning to the position where the missing person was last seen onboard, and beginning a sector search from that datum point. The Theoule SNSM was also scrambled to join the search. 

This time the victim was a dummy, lying low in the water but wearing an activated MConnected MOB unit. The captain and the lifeboat coxswain each had a tablet loaded with the software that tracks activated roaming units, and both vessels proceeded to the vicinity of the MOB, with the yacht manoeuvering into position for a prompt recovery. 

The crises continued. White smoke coming from the engine access and a cry of “Fire” from a crew member signaled a potential existential threat to the yacht. Discharge of a fire extinguisher proved useless against a developing conflagration, so the engine room was sealed off and CROSS MED was alerted while the crew fire-fighting team kitted up. Alerted by CROSS MED, the Cannes SNSM lifeboat was called to assist. 

Compounding the immediate task of dealing with the fire, isolation of the engine room meant the loss of all propulsive and primary electrical power onboard. The captain informed CROSS MED of this new factor, which reduced his options in dealing with the developing situation. 

One member of the fire-fighting team sustained serious burns (with realistic artificial burns provided by MMA) and her injuries were such that onboard first aid was only sufficient to palliate her condition until she could be evacuated for specialist care.

The Cannes lifeboat approached the yacht’s swim platform to transfer two of its crew to assist in placing the burns victim into a stretcher. They were joined by two of the yacht’s crew in carrying the stretcher onto the lifeboat, a delicate process given the different motions of the two vessels in the seaway.  

Once on board the lifeboat, the live victim was substituted by a dummy and the lifeboat turned to head into port. But the dummy victim’s condition rapidly deteriorated. Time to reach port and then transfer by ambulance became a pressing concern, and the lifeboat asked CROSS MED for emergency evacuation to a burns unit by helicopter. 

Transfering the victim 600 2There was an expectant pause in the movements of all vessels. Within a few minutes the helicopter was spotted in the sky to the south west, with the familiar ‘whop whop’ of the blades. The lifeboat maintained a steady course and speed as instructed by the helicopter crew, and the impressive drama of the rescue transfer began.

Amidst the roar of its engine, the down-wash of air below its main rotor, and the up-flung white spume from the torn sea surface, the helicopter lowered its rescue diver onto the small aft-deck of the lifeboat. The stretcher was attached to the HI-line and winched up, the diver was then attached and lifted, and the helicopter headed for home. 

It all happened very fast, and was followed by a momentary calm. But the sea is the sea, and dramatic distractions can divert attention from the overall navigational picture. From the moment the yacht lost power, the easterly breeze had gradually been setting her down towards the coast of the Esterel, which by now was looming as a lee shore. An urgent call went out for one of the lifeboats to take the disabled yacht in tow and hold her clear of the shore until onboard power could be restored. 

The Theoule lifeboat came under the bow of the yacht and was skillfully handled to maintain position while two tow lines were passed down from the drifting yacht and secured to the lifeboats aft deck bitts. A successful tow of the large yacht by the diminutive lifeboat over a few hundred meters concluded the exercise. SAR Helicopter Jill 600

Debrief of Events

The objective of the exercise was to smooth and speed up critical communications and response times in a real-life emergency. All parties involved acted on a voluntary basis donating their time and assets, and each was later interviewed to discuss their role and what they took away from the experience. Without exception all comments were positive and everyone involved expressed a keen interest for further combined training exercises. 

Captain Thierry Rossignol – Regional Manager of SNSM Lifeboats

The exercise enabled all parties to work together for the first time and everyone involved was very satisfied with the outcome. The concurrence of fire/dead ship/burn victim is not an everyday scenario, but CROSS MED welcomed the opportunity to participate knowing that it could happen for real. 

During the afternoon session I had contributed to the learning experience by deliberately increasing the pressure onboard to give a sense of the stress involved in a live situation. For the captain this was on top of the demands of having a limited number of crew to respond to situations, maintaining onboard contact with all crew members, and keeping CROSS MED constantly updated to coordinate rescue activities. For the crew on the foredeck during the towing operation it meant adding stress to the unfamiliar task of rigging and passing tow lines. 

As an observer, MConnected’s trial MOB system worked very well, and the most challenging aspect of the MOB rescue was the retrieval onboard due to the yacht’s high freeboard. 

Crew on bridge

There’s a common assumption that big yachts are self-sufficient and equipped to handle their own emergencies, so this exercise was a valuable demonstration of what local support services can do for a big yacht in difficulty. Helicopters for example cannot usually pick up from a yacht, so transfer via the SNSM lifeboat was a necessary part of the exercise. I would welcome future combined exercises, perhaps next time involving a diving accident. 

Jon Usher – SNSM Lifeboats 

The particular value of the exercise for SNSM was the opportunity to exercise with one of the larger yachts, which operate differently from local day boats and provide a particular challenge when being approached up close in a seaway. This was the first time for an SNSM lifeboat to exercise with a large yacht and to conduct a casualty transfer. 

Tow line rigging from the high bow of the superyacht was also a new challenge. To prepare for any future real-life scenario, SNSM will need to study issues such as bollard pull and the strength of modern synthetic lines, which raised some concerns during the exercise. 

Based on this exercise and previous trials together, there is much appreciation for the potential of MConnected’s mobile units in casualty location within SNSM’s lifeboats’ operational range.

John on tender2John Wyborn – Training Director at Bluewater

Having coordinated the logistics and provided some basic onboard training for the yacht’s crew, I assumed an observer’s role during the exercise, noting positive lessons and potential weak points. The long term value of the exercise will lie in the video footage shot during the day together with notes from the debrief. Crucially, what was of particular value on one day for one yacht will now be available to illustrate to future Bluewater students how emergencies can develop and be compounded in a scenario as close to real life as can be provided. 

Ben Young – Managing Director of Sunseeker Superyacht Management

The participation of a Sunseeker Superyacht in such a large scale training exercise was an amazing opportunity. From a management perspective, Sunseeker SYM was fully supportive of their managed yachts participation and we saw it as a unique experience in team building. Two observations were of particular interest to us. Firstly, that a highly manoeuvrable yacht can turn very quickly and position close to a MOB and, secondly, the versatile use of the lifting swim platform in the right weather and sea conditions. 

Bridge looking out 600Captain Jean-Maxime Berthet – 40m Sunseeker

The first learning moment came during the first MOB exercise, for which all crew were prepared and ready for a quick reaction. Despite the easy maneuverability of the yacht, when she completed the turn and was on course to return to the MOB position, neither myself nor my Chief Officer, who was also on the bridge, could see the MOB.

It revealed the extent to which the prevailing light chop with a wave height around the height of a coffee table could obscure a MOB in a lifejacket. The experience emphasized the critical role of outside spotters who maintained point-and-look contact with the MOB. 

Launching the rescue tender for the second MOB recovery drill reaffirmed the disconnect between the Large Yacht Code (LY3) requirement to carry a rescue tender, the limited choice of stowage spaces on typical motor yachts, the risks associated with launching near the bow, and the impracticability of launching the tender in any sea state above a light chop. 

Crew to board rescue tenderThe first liferaft launched for the Abandon Ship drill failed to inflate. It was an out-of-date unit donated for the drill, and underlined the importance of not allowing any life saving equipment to go past its expiry date by even a day.

When the second raft was inflated and all the crew were inside, they were entangled and overlapping, despite the raft being of the nominal capacity for their number. It also became hot inside when the raft was closed up, and some crew quickly felt incipient seasickness during their few minutes bouncing around in light swells. 

The response to the second MOB was delayed, as per the script, to give time between the report of a suspected missing person and the outcome of the onboard search to confirm it. A MAYDAY message was simulated as the yacht returned to the last Estimated Position of the MOB to start a search pattern. Andrew Bland, Business Development Director at MConnected, was on the bridge tracking the MOB on his tablet, which provided an instant latitude and longitude of the transmitting unit. 

Sunseeker and lifeboats 600Some important lessons were learned about the interactions between a superyacht and a SNSM lifeboat - having an 18m lifeboat coming close to the swim platform was an uncomfortable feeling. The use of fenders also created a gap across which the burns victim had to be carried, with the risk of slips and further casualties. 

Attaching a tow line to the low freeboard lifeboat would have been easier if the yacht had carried a towing bridle and dedicated towline but in this case two double lines were used instead of a bridle. Thierry has suggested that in future we attach a tow line to the anchor to act as a shock cord. I was gratified to hear that the exercise was very useful for the Navy helicopter crew and for CROSS MED which had involved a new Lieutenant in training. 

Andrew Bland – Business Development Director, MConnected 

The mobile MOB unit worn by our CEO Pete Johnson and the dummy was a prototype, 18 months into development. It can switch between GPRS (up to 10 miles offshore) and any chosen satellite system and multiple access points can be provided for observers. 

During the exercise tracking units were used on both SNSM boats, while I was onboard the yacht tracking the MOB and the position of the lifeboats on my tablet. 

Our MOB unit is currently manually activated, but it is being tested for auto-activation for crew special duties, such as securing a loose anchor at night in heavy weather, or operating tenders out of visual or radar coverage. At present only the mother ship is alerted, not Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres, (MRCCs) until concerns over possible false alarms have been addressed. The mother screen currently shows GPS coordinates but Jean has suggested the display could be simplified by showing bearing and distance to the MOB, and this software change is already under development. 

Currently around 15 groups have access to MConnected’s software, with trials happening on six SNSM lifeboats. As an active supporter of SNSM, we had already conducted a number of joint trials and, as a result, they will have access to units with refined search accuracy.  

Debbie Small - Marine Medical Antibes

I was onboard the yacht to observe the exercise and to participate in filming for later use in crew training. The exercises highlighted what can go wrong even with a rehearsed scenario, and also how people adapt and cope. We will now adapt our training to reflect lessons learned, for example that the yacht’s medical leader may be injured or occupied with another emergency so, rather than rely on one person, it would be safer to spread the expertise more widely among the crew. 

Comments from Observers 

The opportunity for this interaction between a superyacht and the rescue services was highly instructive and will contribute to improving performance in a real life situation. Since superyachts are the best equipped units along the coast, and since crews are predominantly Anglophone, it may be useful for CROSS MED to give MAYDAY and PAN relays in English as well as in French to speed up a yacht’s attendance to assist a person or another vessel in distress. 

The fire exercise also highlighted the potential for an incident to require a very intensive response by crew members, followed by emotional shock and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if the incident results in tragedy or near-tragedy. Currently no mandatory training course provides any guidance in how to deal with this.


Everyone who participated derived enormous value from the experience and would welcome further training exercises around different scenarios. Although drills and exercises can never replicate the stress and adrenaline of a real-life emergency, being closely observed and filmed would certainly have kept all participants on their toes. There were no embarrassing mishaps and no glaring errors made.

The opportunity for key players to interact and observe each other in this way facilitates a better understanding of the different roles within in a coordinated response and allows us to fine-tune crew training. It’s also a great exercise in team building, greatly enhancing the relationship between the superyacht community and the local emergency services which come to our aid.  

snsm logo                    Bluewater logo 280

MConnected logo 280      Maarine Med Antibes logo2 




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