Intensifying weather conditions in the Southern Ocean could derail a plan to rescue a round-the-world solo yachtsman adrift in a life raft in the Southern Ocean on Sunday night.
The Australian-owned cruise liner MV Orion has been steaming towards the life raft of French national Alain Delord since receiving a distress call on Friday afternoon patched through by the Rescue Centre Co-ordinator in Canberra.
The Orion was scheduled to intercept Mr Delord at 7pm EDT. It is now expected to reach him no earlier than 8pm, which could mean he will spend a third night adrift at sea.
“We were doing good speed until about late last night – about 13.5 knots, which is the ship's maximum speed,” said the captain, Mike Taylor. “Since then, the swell has increased from three to four metres and, more significantly, it has changed direction. Waves that were previously coming from behind the ship are now coming at us head on and we are pitching quite a bit. It's slowed us down to about 12.5 knots and we could slow down further still.”
Captain Taylor said the crew had only a 2 1/2-hour window to rescue Mr Delord before nightfall.
“Sunset is at 9.30pm so it is critical we get to him while we still have a few hours of sunlight. Otherwise we will probably have to wait until the morning to pick him up. It's just too dangerous to try anything like after dark.
“We can't even tether him to the ship either. The only thing we'll be able to do is stand off and wait till the morning.”
The mood among the ship's 91 passengers was considerably upbeat, despite having their cruise to Antarctica and the Sub-Antarctic Islands cut short by the rescue effort.
“It feels like the night before Christmas,” said a US national, Randy Nelson. “The anticipation that something good is about to happen.”
Kellee Cruse of Sydney said: “I'm excited to see this guy safe. Everyone will be relieved once this rescue is completed safely.”
Orion's chief medical officer, Chris Bulstrode, increased Mr Delord's chances of survival after hearing he had been transferred to a new life raft with fresh food and water dropped by the rescue co-ordinator on Saturday night.
“He will be having a miserable time in there,” Dr Bulstrode said. “Those rafts are very humid inside and his skin will be rubbed and chafed. He will also be very tired but I suspect not much more will be wrong with him.”
Dr Bulstrode, who has extensive experience treating trauma victims in Gaza and Afghanistan, said the Orion was equipped with sufficient medical equipment should Mr Delord 's situation prove more critical.
“I have everything I need ready,” he said. “Electrocardiogram, temperature probes to test his core temperature, oxygen-saturating monitor to see if he has enough oxygen through his blood, and I can test his blood-sugar level.
"Hypothermia is not a concern at this stage. He's in a survival suit so it is very unlikely he will be cold.
“I would not give him a 100 per cent chance of making it. That would be a crazy thing to do,” Dr Bulstrode said. “But I'm willing to put a positive spin on things and say his chances have leapt up and now sit in the high 90s . . . if we can find him, that is.
“His beacon could have run out of battery by the time we get there. His life raft could have sunk. Anything can happen within the next few hours. We're not in the clear yet.”