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A sailboat disappeared a month ago about 75 miles off the Catalan coast, off the Cape of Begur. The Sylph, a 7.3-meter-long vessel, set sail on May 5 from Martigues, France, on the northern shore of the Gulf of Lion. On board were two friends and experienced sailors, the French animated film director Emmanuel Rouffio (63 years old) and the Moroccan businessman Mamoun Rtal Bennai (34 years old), the latter with family ties in Barcelona. Their relatives do not lose hope of finding them alive while the experts shuffle various hypotheses to understand how the Sylph.

Maritime incidents are not uncommon, but shipwrecks are and even more disappearances. In Spain, 19 shipwrecks were investigated in 2020 that resulted in the loss of the ship, according to the latest official data available from the Permanent Commission for the Investigation of Maritime Accidents and Incidents (CIAM), a body dependent on the Ministry of Transport. They were all fishing boats. In the case of Sylph everything is unknown: what has happened and where it is, and why the emergency warning systems failed. “It is not at all common for a boat to disappear, and more so in this area of ​​the Mediterranean,” says Toni Rivas, professional sailor and sports director of the Club Nàutic Garraf.

Rouffio is the owner of the Sylph. She had recently acquired it and wanted to move it to Tangier to leave from there in the summer for the Canary Islands. On their way to the Moroccan city they wanted to make a stopover in the Balearic Islands, a stop scheduled for May 10. His wife spoke to him for the last time on May 5 at 3:00 p.m., the same day they set sail from the French coast. As of 18:00, the vessel stopped regularly broadcasting the Automatic Identification Signal (AIS) through the VHF radio system. The last official position of the sailboat, according to Cross Med, the French maritime rescue, was detected on May 6 at dawn about 80 miles from Cape Creus. This area, with strong winds, depends on the French maritime rescue. Francis Courteaux, a boat rescue expert with Cross Med, detected one more faint signal from the Sylph on May 7, further south, about 75 miles from Cape Begur.

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The Sylph It is a small boat for crossings of these distances. On a boat this small, the antenna that sends the AIS signal is not located high enough to ensure constant transmission: strong waves can block the signal. That is Courteaux’s hypothesis: the two sailors were surprised in the Gulf of León by a storm with wind gusts of up to 70 kilometers per hour and waves of 5 meters. For a large boat, these conditions are not a problem, but they can be for a pleasure sailboat of only 7 meters in length.

not an SOS

Courteaux’s theory is that the sailboat was severely damaged, with the possibility of a broken mast. The big question in this case is why the crew didn’t send an SOS or why didn’t they activate the satellite locator beacon? This can be activated manually or activated automatically in case of sinking. A Maritime Rescue technician in Spain tells EL PAÍS that if the beacon does not activate, it could be because it is damaged or because it is stored in the cabins and not in its deck container.

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Rivas emphasizes that he is not aware of any similar case in which all the safety systems fail: the distress call, the emergency beacon but also the signaling beacon incorporated in the life raft. This boat, if it works properly, automatically inflates itself with the pressure of the water, in the event that the boat sinks, and reaches the surface. The sailor indicates that “it could be that they suddenly capsized and fell into the sea”, but adds: “The Mediterranean has a lot of maritime traffic and in a month it is strange that no remains of the ship were found”.

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The first notice of the disappearance of the two friends was given by Rouffio’s wife on May 12, a week later. The French authorities alerted their counterparts in Spain and Italy. They notified their ports and ships sailing in the area where the Sylphwithout receiving any positive response. Based on Courteaux’s reports of areas where the drifting vessel might have been headed, a French Navy plane searched for them on May 28, also without results.

Map of the expert Francis Courteaux with the possible wreck area and the possible drifting directions of the 'Sylphe'.
Map of the expert Francis Courteaux with the possible wreck area and the possible drifting directions of the ‘Sylphe’.

The representative of Maritime Rescue, an entity dependent on the Ministry of Transport, indicates that the planes and rescue ships are activated depending on the time that has passed since the incident and the estimated location of the damaged ship. In the case of Sylph, These variables give little room for action. Regular control flights are only carried out on the usual transit routes of small boats with migrants coming from the African coasts. From Salvamento Marítimo it is also noted that there have been cases in which the disappearance is a voluntary decision to change life.

The families defend the possibility that Rouffio and Rtal Bennai are alive and adrift. Abla Bennani, Mamoun’s sister, asks that Cross Med resume the search in collaboration with the Spanish and Italian authorities. They claim that the Sylph it had the airbag system that prevents the hull from sinking, in addition to the lifeboat and supplies to survive for weeks. The rescues after so many days at the mercy of the sea are exceptional. In 2021, the discovery of a canoe with three survivors three weeks after setting sail from Mauritania to the Canary Islands made headlines.

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