Sailing: Le Bon pushes the boat out

Press

Sailing: Le Bon pushes the boat out
ANDREW LONGMORE

The Duran Duran lead singer is reuniting his old crew to compete in the race in which he was nearly killed 20 years ago

The former owner has weathered the past two decades rather better than his old boat. The technology has moved on and Drum is looking her age these days, but Simon Le Bon, lead singer of Duran Duran and part-time sailor, has worn the years more lightly, despite heavy jet lag after finishing a gruelling schedule of concerts in the US just 48 hours earlier.

It is 20 years since Drum capsized in gale-force winds off Falmouth during the Fastnet race, trapping Le Bon and five other members of the 24-strong crew beneath the hull. But for the eagle eye of a retired coastguard walking on the Cornish cliffs who reported the capsize, the speed of the rescue services and the calm efficiency of Petty Officer Larry Slater, a trained diver, the anniversary would have been a cause for mourning rather than celebration. Had a fault in the steering system not delayed them by six hours earlier in the race, Drum would have suffered her catastrophic keel failure in far more dangerous waters. Today, however, Drum — now renamed Arnold Clark Drum by its owner — will proudly take its place on the start line for the 2005 Rolex Fastnet, its crew reunited for the first time since they were winched to safety 20 years ago.

At the time Duran Duran were at the height of their fame and Le Bon, with his model wife Yasmin, was at the top of any celebrity A-list. The account of his escape made headline news. People magazine featured him solo on its front cover, much to the disgust of the rest of the band. Equally typically, the final stage of the rescue was tinged with farce as Le Bon caught his long johns on a stanchion in the process of swimming to the surface and had to dive back down to release them. “I came up wearing only my underpants,” he recalls. Other memories are less easily laughed away. “One of the crew caught below was drowning,” Le Bon says. “He was right at the back of the boat where all the heavy sails are stowed. When the boat overturned, it took on about half a ton of water and he was stuck underneath the sails, unable to get out. He was terrified. You could hear him screaming.
The whole experience, I imagine, comes somewhere very low on the scale of what young men go through when they go to war and face the very great possibility of death. They look after each other and they get each other through it. I suppose that’s one reason why we wanted to get together.”

Among the crew was Bruno Peyron, one of France’s greatest round-the-world yachtsmen; the American Skip Novak, sailor, mountaineer and adventurer; Le Bon’s brother Johnny, an osteopath; Paul and Mike Berrow, once Duran Duran’s managers, and a man known simply as Chaz from Tas. Tracking them all down took Phil Wade, one of the crew, several months and almost a thousand emails. The one sadness is that the roll call could not be fully complete; Janne Gustafsson died in a motorcycle accident five years later. A crew of 15 will tackle the 608-mile race from Cowes round the Fastnet rock off the Irish coast and back to Plymouth, one of the classics of ocean racing. The rest will lead the cheering from the shore.

“We were planning to do something for the 10th anniversary but nothing much happened,” says Le Bon. “Then I was sitting in a bar in New Zealand with Phil Holland, an old member of the crew, and we said: ‘Okay, let’s do it’. Phil Wade did much of the work, but I made the right phone calls when I had to let people know I wanted it to happen and we’re doing it in part to publicise the work of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution as well.

“It’s strange. The first time around I felt I was a bit of a sideshow to the main event, which was Skip Novak. There was always that suspicion I was brought on board because I would bring some publicity to the project. This time I’m not just a figurehead.”

Le Bon’s flirtation with the sea did not end in near drowning in the 1985 Fastnet. Drum was built for the Whitbread Round the World race that same year but had lain half complete in a dock when the skipper for whom the boat was commissioned died at sea. “She wasn’t painted, she was just a hull full of holes,” Le Bon recalls. “There were no winches, nothing, and the waves were slapping against the hull. Phil Barrett, a friend of mine, was with me and he said, ‘She’ll be a right drum in the ocean’. So Drum she became, which was appropriate with the musical connotation.”

After the capsize in the Fastnet, the 77ft Maxi yacht was refitted and entered for the Whitbread. Le Bon went on a sailing holiday to Turkey to recover his nerve, though he was unable to sleep below deck for a time, and then joined the crew on the round-the-world race after the second leg. Drum, never the luckiest of boats, finished a highly creditable third before Le Bon sold her to the Scottish entrepreneur Arnold Clark for £250,000. She has been leased back to Le Bon for the race. If there is business to be finished on the Fastnet, Le Bon will not admit it. The reunion is for pleasure, he says, not to prove anything or complete a neat circle.

“There’s no burning desire to finish the race,” Le Bon says. “If we feel like it, we’ll stop off in Plymouth on the way down to the Fastnet and head for the nearest bar, if that’s what we feel like doing. We’re doing this to have fun and bring a group of people back together for whom, and I include myself, that race was one of the most critical and important events in their lives. I don ’t want to lose contact with these guys. I feel emotionally more attached to them than to the boat.”

Once at the cutting edge of boat design, Drum will make sedate progress down the Solent and out into the Channel this morning, one of the varied flotilla that traditionally characterises the Fastnet. Nothing much on board has changed in the intervening years, though the crew are older and wiser. “If the weather stays fine, with a nice bit of wind, we’re going to have a great time,” says Le Bon.

If not, they can always steer a course straight for the safe haven of Plymouth. Or Rio.

Courtesy Sunday Times (London)

Join The Mailing List