A SOLO round-the-world sailor has been rescued in a dramatic operation on the open sea.
Frenchman Alain Delord was pulled from the ocean 380 nautical miles south-west of Hobart by crew from the passenger ship the MV Orion at 9.23pm on Sunday night.
The ship plucked Mr Delord from the water only minutes before fading daylight would have made a rescue impossible.
Adrift in a life raft after abandoning his yacht two days before, Mr Delord had sent a distress call on Friday, prompting the Orion to change course and steam to the rescue.
Doctor Chris Bulstrode examined Mr Delord and found him in good health.
“He was very happy to come aboard and was able to walk without assistance, all garbed up in his survival suit. He is very grateful to everyone; [he] wanted a nice cup of tea with two sugars in it.
“He said there had been very heavy seas and his boat had been hit by a big wave, and his mast had broken into four pieces. And then the boat had been rolled right over the waves and he decided to abandon ship. He had to leave his passport and everything behind and he does not know whether his yacht is still afloat or not.
“I just checked him over, made sure he was not cold or dehydrated and that he did not have any major injures. Then we washed him down and warmed him up.
“I am surprised that he survived the whole thing so well and [is] so cheerful because it must have been a devastating shock to him. He had been at sea for three months. And of course now being surrounded by lots of people, he has not seen a human being for three months, and suddenly he is the centre of attention.”
Ian Vella, the hotel manager of the Orion, said despite his ordeal Mr Delord was ''absolutely fine''.
“He is in excellent spirits. We had French onion soup proceeded by a nice fresh green salad and lamb shank with a nice glass of red. I gave him a bottle of Australian Cabernet Merlot as he said he had been at sea for three months without a drink. I gave him my own sweater, underwear, socks, a couple of shirts, and the doc gave him some toiletries.
“His eyes popped when he saw the suite, he was not expecting anything so big and luxurious. He is very much overwhelmed, and on a huge high, I guess. If you are going to be rescued, it’s better to be rescued by the MV Orion than any other ship in the world. He is a lovely man. We’ll take him out tomorrow to meet all the passengers, and I think he will be the star of the show.”
The Orion's journey to Mr Delord was slowed by wild winds and seas, which also made the rescue operation hazardous.
The boat was forced to turn off its stabilisers in order to undertake the operation, causing it to rock back and forth and pitch about 30 degrees.
A Zodiac was dispatched from the Orion, and after a 60-second struggle during which it was beaten against the side of the ship, crew managed to secure Mr Delord.
The Orion expedition leader, Don McIntrye, said the captain, Mike Taylor, did an excellent job manoeuvering the boat next to Mr Delord's life raft.
"He got the ship much closer than we expected. But as soon as we opened the side gate, we took quite a large wave. I was on the other side of the gate and in a moment I was standing in water up to my knees and worried about being washed out in to the ocean so I quickly shut the door.
''A few moments later we reopened the site gate and a command was given to launch the Zodiac. So Tim Sharpe our ice pilot and the driver Steve Bautista rocketed across the water, grabbed Alain and brought him onto the Zodiac. They then rocketed back to us, we brought him up and it was over that quick.
''It pretty much all worked to plan, and we are very excited to have him on aboard now. It's a great feeling."
Huge cheers could be heard from the Orion's 91 passengers - who were supposed to have been heading to Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic Islands before their trip was cut short for the rescue effort - when the retrieval was achieved.
Captain Taylor said the ship would now set course for Hobart.
Captain Taylor said a Hercules aircraft that had been tracking the stranded sailor dropped smoke and light floats into the water so the MV Orion could locate him.
"We couldn’t see the floats until we were about three-quarters of a mile away, and we didn't see the raft until half a mile, so without their help in the conditions there was no way we were going to find him," Mr Taylor told ABC 702 radio.
He said the rescue mission to reach Mr Delord, "was as extreme as I’d seen it" and involved "team work and a lot of luck".
The ship was positioned across the swell to shelter the raft and the Zodiac was dropped into the water on the crest of a wave.
Captain Taylor said one of the rescuers "grabbed him [Mr Delord] by the scruff and pulled him from the raft into the boat, and then it was a case of driving to the door".
"He was pretty happy," Captain Taylor said of Mr Delord. "I think that was part of the rationale for keeping the planes overhead, that he had somebody to talk to and knew he wasn't alone. It's incredible, we were 680 miles away and we were the closest asset. It’s a pretty isolated part of the world."
He said Mr Delord did not speak much English, so a translator was sent up in one of the planes to communicate with him.
The MV Orion was en route to Macquarie Island, a world heritage area known for its colonies of sea birds, when it received the distress call, and Captain Taylor said the guests on board the ship were "massively disappointed" when told they would have to divert.
"They were pretty broken up about it. I've been down there [to Macquarie Island] 11 times but, as you can imagine, for most of the guests this was to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I have to say that when we actually managed the rescue yesterday there was just a cheer you could hear right over the ship when we pulled him in through the door. I think everybody’s feeling somewhat better about it now," he said.
Until Saturday night the Orion had been going at maximum speed trying to reach Mr Delord, travelling at about 13.5 knots, but it was slowed on Sunday evening by an increase in swell size from three to four metres, and a change in wind direction.
If the crew had not got to Mr Delord before nightfall at 9.30pm they would not have been able to rescue him.
Mr McIntrye said the rescue was getting a lot of attention in Australia and overseas.
''Our Facebook page is getting 300 visitors a minute,'' he said.
with Amy Corderoy and Megan Levy