Asailor spent 24 hours in a life raft in shark-infested waters after his boat mysteriously sank with no explanation.
Finnish skipper Tapio Lehtinen, 64, was taking part in the 2022 Golden Globe Race—a solo around-the-world sailing event that began on September 4, starting and finishing at Les Sables-d’Olonne in France.
But on the night of November 18, while floating 450 miles from the coast of South Africa, he woke up to a bang. He quickly realized water was pouring into his boat, he said in a statement published on Facebook.
“The water was already knee deep with more rushing in from the engine compartment at the stern of the boat,” Golden Globe Race spokesperson Sebastien Delasnerie told Newsweek. “The vessel got flooded to deck level within five minutes and Tapio immediately realized that he had to abandon ship, put on his survival suit, take his comms grab bag and enter the life raft.
“Asteria then sank within 20 minutes, with Tapio saluting her one last time, standing up in the life raft.”
The sinking was “beyond his comprehension,” Lehtinen said in a statement. His boat had been rebuilt four years ago. It had been inspected before the race began and was thought to be in perfect condition. Lehtinen said it had been “summer conditions,” with no severe weather expected.
The ocean off Port Elizabeth is home to an abundance of shark species in the warmer spring and summer months, including great whites. Although attacks are incredibly rare, sharks occasionally mistake the movements of boats in the water for prey, meaning they can be lurking nearby.
A shark attack recently occurred off Plettenberg Bay, 143 miles from Port Elizabeth. A 39-year-old woman died after the predator appeared out of a wave and attacked.
The skipper remained on his life raft for 24 hours.
Lehtinen initiated a distress signal from a beacon that was picked up by the race crisis management team. They quickly initiated a rescue.
Fellow Golden Globe race entrants Kirsten Neuschäfer and Abhilash Tomy were the closest to his distress position, respectively 105 and 170 miles away.
“[They] Changed course, [to] go find Tapio,” Jérôme Drnovšek, Neuschäfer’s manager during the race told Newsweek. “There are dangers involved in this race, and they are balanced by the fact they would all do this for each other. No questions asked.”
All the while, Lehtinen waited on his life raft. Being in such a rush to abandon ship, the sailor didn’t have the food, medicine and water that competitors are equipped with in case of emergency.
“Already before the start of the race, at a safety briefing in Les Sables d’Olonne, I told my competitors that if we’d get into trouble, we would be in the best of hands, I only never imagined that I would be the one,” Lehtinen said. “Getting into the raft in a rush without my grab bags of food, medicine and water, I knew that it wouldn’t be a long stay. And it wasn’t. I felt safe through the 24+ hrs on the raft.”
As Neuschäfer got closer to Lehtinen’s position, Tomy was relieved from the rescue effort, but remained in the vicinity of the distress position just in case.
At 6.35 a.m. local time the next day, Neuschäfer confirmed that she had arrived at the distress position.
“Our understanding is that the rescue went fast,” Drnovšek said. “The hardest was to find Tapio as his life raft was bobbling in [6 to 9 foot] waves. She could hear him on the radio but she couldn’t see him.”
Neuschäfer finally confirmed that she had Lehtinen safely aboard her boat.
“I picked him up from the life raft, we shared a glass of Rum and I sent him on his merry way,” she told rescue teams.
Why Did It Sink?
“In short, no one knows [why it sank], including Tapio—we probably will never know, since the boat is 16,000 feet under,” Delasnerie said.
The sinking is even more puzzling as the conditions were thought to be perfect for sailing. The only clue is the noise Lehtinen heard as it began to sink under the waves.
“If Tapio doesn’t know, then I suspect we will never know,” Drnovšek said.
Lehtinen said he was disappointed to not finish the race, “but life goes on. My focus from now on will be on the Ocean Globe Race with Galiana starting on Sept. 10, 2023.”