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Tony Bullimore, Saved in Dramatic Ocean Rescue, Dies at 79

“It was like a washing machine from hell.”

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Neil Genzlinger
, New York Times

“It was like a washing machine from hell.”

That is how Tony Bullimore once described the four days he spent in a frigid ocean underneath his capsized sailboat, water churning in and out through a broken window as he waited for rescue or death.

It was rescue that arrived first, in the form of the Adelaide, an Australian frigate that found Bullimore during a frantic search undertaken when he and several other participants in an around-the-world race ran into a catastrophic storm in the Antarctic Ocean.

Bullimore, whose ordeal and rescue in January 1997 transfixed the world, died last week in Bristol, England. He was 79.

The cause was cancer, the BBC reported. At his funeral on Monday in Bristol, a niece, Yvonne Grant, read a eulogy on behalf of herself and a nephew, Steve Mulvaney. “He didn’t just dream big,” she said of her adventurous uncle. “He lived big.”

Bullimore was 57 when he undertook the 1996-97 Vendée Globe, a solo around-the-world yacht race, in a 60-foot ketch named the Exide Challenger. The race, which takes several months, begins on the French coast, with the sailors going south and clockwise around the globe. In the Antarctic Ocean, the weather was more than the Exide Challenger could withstand.

“The keel came off like breaking a matchstick,” Bullimore told The Associated Press after his ordeal, describing the moment when the key stabilizing part of his boat broke. “It just went ‘snap.’ And within seconds, literally within a few seconds, the boat was sitting upside down with me sitting inside the boat, sitting and standing and sliding around on the roof, with water slowly seeping in.”

He was in a pocket of air, but that pocket soon shrank. In “Godforsaken Sea: Racing the World’s Most Dangerous Waters” (1998), a book about the ill-fated race, author Derek Lundy described what happened:

“Then the window smashed by the boom, the boat instantly flooding, the cabin contents sucked out into the sea. Bullimore diving down and through the companionway hatch to try to cut away his life raft. The hatch slamming shut, chopping off his finger.”

He managed to push a distress beacon device out through the broken window in hopes that it would reach the surface and broadcast his location, then climbed onto a shelf, half in, half out of the water. He was wearing an immersion suit, which kept him from hypothermia.

He was not the only competitor in trouble. Elsewhere in the vast ocean, Raphael Dinelli had also capsized; a fellow racer, Pete Goss, made a harrowing trip through stormy seas and rescued him. Thierry Dubois was plucked from a life raft by a helicopter. Another competitor, Gerry Roufs, was not so fortunate; his body was never found, though the wreckage of his boat turned up months later off Chile.

Anthony Maurice Frederick Bullimore was born on Jan. 15, 1939, in Southend-on-Sea, on the English coast east of London, to Bill and Kitty (Da Costa) Bullimore. As a boy he helped his father in his shop in the Petticoat Lane Market in London.

Before he was known for his sailing adventures, he was a nightclub owner. In 1965 he married Lalel Jackson, an immigrant from Jamaica, and the next year they opened the Bamboo Club in Bristol. The club was known for its Afro-Caribbean music and mingling of cultures and races. The club presented a number of big-name stars, including Tina Turner, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley, before a fire forced its closing in 1977.

His wife survives him.

Bullimore, who also had an import-export business, entered his first solo trans-Atlantic race in 1976 and was England’s Yachtsman of the Year in 1985. In their eulogy, his niece and nephew said he logged 300,000 ocean miles and competed in more than 150 races. He continued to sail after his near-fatal experience in the Vendée Globe. He was not without his detractors. Even while the 1997 search-and-rescue was in progress, some critics wondered about the high cost of such operations and who should pay them. In 2006, when Bullimore was out of radio contact for 11 days during an attempt to set a solo circumnavigation record, news accounts speculated that the blackout was merely a publicity stunt. After he phoned his wife on the 11th day, he and his support crew offered the explanation that he had turned off his onboard phone to conserve power or had been out of satellite range.

After his dramatic rescue in 1997, Bullimore was quick to start telling his story, including in a book, “Saved,” published later that year. He also wrote a first-person account that appeared in The Western Daily Press, a British newspaper, in August 1997, describing his state of mind while he waited for potential rescue.

“I’ve never actually been afraid of dying,” he wrote. “I’ve heard people say that anyone who isn’t frightened of death is a fool, but I don’t agree. I can’t afford to get scared; I have to look at the situation and work out the logistics. That’s the only way I’m going to stay alive for a little longer — just in case they’re coming.”

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