For luckless French rower, early 'finis'

Record-setting quest ends with another costly rescue article page player in wide format.
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / May 30, 2009
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French oarsman Charlie Girard failed for a third time yesterday in his quixotic quest to row to France from Cape Cod. And US taxpayers are $80,000 poorer.

That's the cost of dispatching a Coast Guard jet and helicopter to a 21-foot, custom-designed rowboat bobbing 150 miles off Cape Cod, where Girard called it quits 10 days into his latest aborted adventure.

Fearful and cold in a menacing fog, Girard used a satellite phone to place an 8:25 a.m. distress call to the Coast Guard in Boston.

"I can't do anything," Girard, 28, said in a weak, breaking voice. "I'm cold, and I don't know what to do."

After relaying his position, Girard activated an emergency locator beacon, hunkered inside the cabin of the Caliste, and waited for the Coast Guard to ride to the rescue in poor visibility.

"Trying to pinpoint his location in the fog was challenging," said Lieutenant Commander Brian Hopkins, the helicopter pilot from Air Station Cape Cod. "Visibility was only about a quarter of a mile. We overflew him twice."

Far from the jaunty figure depicted on the website for his journey, dubbed Atlantique 2009, Girard sounded bewildered and desperate in a recording of his plea for help. From his boat, which was undamaged, he relayed his position and confirmed that he had planned to row to France.

"I am in a rowing boat," he said. "I request assistance."

Later, as Girard waved at the helicopter, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer jumped in the 49-degree water while a basket was lowered into 7-foot seas. Girard, wearing a survival suit, was hoisted 40 feet into the aircraft, where he communicated briefly with the crew through hand-written notes over the roaring of the rotor blades overhead.

Mostly, however, Girard remained silent while the Jayhawk helicopter made an hourlong return flight to Cape Cod.

"He seemed in good health," Hopkins said. "The only thing he told us was that he had been out there for 10 days."

Girard will not be billed for the $80,000 expense, which includes six hours of total air time for the jet and helicopter, and the cost of support crews. Petty Officer Etta Smith, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Boston, said policy is to use taxpayer money to pay for rescues.

Smith declined to comment on the wisdom of Girard's effort, but acknowledged the risk for the rescued and the rescuers.

"Anytime any of our crews go out on a rescue, there will be lives at risk," Smith said. "And honestly, anytime anyone goes out to sea, there will be risk involved."

That risk might have been apparent to Girard. It wasn't the first time he abandoned his goal of breaking the 62-day record set in 2004, just the most expensive to American taxpayers.

In 2007, Girard rowed only three hours from Orleans before he noticed that several gallons of water had leaked into his boat. His trip ended ignominiously when he was towed to shore by the harbormaster.

Two days later, he left again and traveled 50 miles over two days before being rescued in poor visibility by the Coast Guard.

Yesterday, when asked by reporters whether he would try once more, Girard slapped a big, emphatic "finis" on his dreams of ocean-traversing glory.

Girard had the misfortune - or possibly good fortune, if worse weather lay ahead - to run into a tropical depression after his May 19 departure from Orleans. On a website that chronicled his ill-fated journey, a chart of his day-by-day position showed that Girard had begun traveling in a strength-sapping circle as he struggled against deteriorating conditions that stymied his advance.

But still, as recently as Tuesday, Girard seemed to be making good progress in his voyage.

"He is well," his website chronicler reported that day. "He becomes used more and more to the life on Caliste. He sleeps better now. A bird accompanied some hours on Saturday. He saw two boats."

The site appealed, in awkwardly translated English, for donations to help Girard "beat the record of the world of the crossing by rows the North Atlantic ocean."

By making a contribution, the appeal continued, "you will allow Charlie to close the budget and you will participate in an exceptional adventure."

On his website, where he says he comes from the Deux-Sèvres region in the west of France, he describes himself as "not a sea man . . . contrary to the previous adventurers, he has only coastal navigation experiences."

After Girard's safe return to land, his website marked the denouement with a glum, brief announcement: "Charlie decided to stop his adventure. He was helped by the Coast Guard. He is well."

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(Coast Guard audio)