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3 men rescued after sharks repeatedly attacked their inflatable boat off Australia

The sailors, from Russia and France, were rescued from the sinking catamaran early Wednesday.
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Three sailors were rescued from a sinking inflatable catamaran Wednesday after it came under repeated attack by sharks that stranded them more than 500 miles off Australia.

Rescuers picked up the men, two Russians and a Frenchman, after their emergency beacon sent out a distress call at 1:30 a.m. eastern Australian time (11 a.m. Tuesday ET), the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, or AMSA, said in a statement.

The crew had embarked from the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu on Aug. 28 and were headed to the Australian city of Cairns on the latest stage of an around-the-world trip.

But several shark attacks damaged both hulls of their 30-foot boat.

cookiecutter shark, Isistius brasiliensis, found during offshore blackwater dive in Kona Coast, Big Island, Hawaii, USA, Pacific Ocean
A cookiecutter shark.Blue Planet Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The catamaran had “large sections of its hull missing,” Joe Zeller, a senior manager at AMSA, said in a video statement.

"An emergency beacon absolutely saved their lives," said Zeller, who was on call when the distress signal was received.

A huge Panama-registered vehicle carrier, the 650-foot Dugong Ace, carried out the rescue in the Coral Sea. The unharmed sailors, ages 28 to 64, are expected to arrive in Brisbane on Thursday.

AMSA did not name the rescued men. The expedition is led by Evgeny Kovalevsky, alongside crew member Stanislav Berezkin, both from Siberia.

The project's website lists Vincent Thomas Etienne as an extra crew member participating in the Tahiti-Australia stage. The boat is a Russian-registered catamaran named “Russian Ocean Way — Tion.”

Russian boat rescue off Australia
Three sailors from a Russian expedition set sail from Vanuatu to Cairns, Australia, on Sept. 28. @russian.ocean.way / Instagram

A spokesperson for the expedition said by text message that Yulia Kalyuzhnaya, the head of the operation, will fly to Australia to meet the sailors and discuss the future of the voyage.

“Now [the] travelers are safe, this is the most important thing. Unfortunately, the catamaran could not be saved. The fate of the expedition will be clear next week,” the spokesperson said.

The trip from Vanuatu to the trio's intended destination of Cairns, Australia, is more than 1,200 miles. AMSA said it would normally take two to three weeks depending on weather conditions.

An Instagram account for the voyage said the boat was first attacked Monday by cookiecutter sharks, a small species that grows to around 16 inches and is linked to only a handful of attacks on humans. That caused the boat to partly submerge, but it limped on for 100 more miles.

Russian sailing expedition attacked by sharks off Vanuatu
Images released by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority show the small vessel Tion being rescued in the Coral Sea on Wednesday. AMSA

It was attacked again Tuesday, when sharks pierced its right-side hull, causing it to start sinking.

Satellite photos and a video on the AMSA website showed the extent of the damage, with the boat clearly listing and losing buoyancy.

The crew and their belongings were saved, but the catamaran was lost.

“There are many reasons vessels are attacked by sharks, but the motivations of these sharks is unclear,” Zeller said in a video statement released by AMSA. The trio were “very happy” to be rescued, he said.

Russian sailing expedition attacked by sharks off coast of Vanuatu.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority rescued the sailors in the Coral Sea early Wednesday.@russian.ocean.way / Instagram
Russian sailing expedition attacked by sharks off coast of Vanuatu
The three rescued sailors had been heading from the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu to Australia's northeast.@russian.ocean.way / Instagram

The boat set off from St. Petersburg in July 2021, led by Kovalevsky and Berezkin.

The pair said they were emulating pioneering Russian explorers of the 19th century. The voyage was planned to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the birth of Adam Johann von Krusenstern, who led the first Russian round-the-world voyage.

The plan was to visit 40 countries and return to St. Petersburg in July 2024, but the future of the project is now in doubt. Russia’s Ministry of Science and Ministry of Education, as well as the state broadcasting company, are listed as "information partners" on the project's website.

AMSA has used the incident to remind sailors to always carry the appropriate safety equipment. "This is a timely reminder to always carry a distress beacon while on the water. GPS-equipped EPIRBs and personal locater beacons (PLBs) can save your life in an emergency," it said in a statement. (EPIRBs are emergency position-indicating radio beacons.)