The gale warning held few terrors for the 80,000-tonne Spanish liquid-gas tanker Sichem Fernol as it ploughed up the Portuguese coast with a cargo for the French port of Best. The off-duty crew were eating supper and watching a movie, hardly aware of the violence of the waves against the huge vessel but a mile away on the storm-tossed sea, the crew of a yacht were already sending out a mayday distress signal.
When the message was received by the Sichem Fernol shortly before 6pm on an April evening in 2005, officers on the bridge were able to pin-point the signal and inform the Portuguese coastguard that as the nearest ship, they were already on their way. Half an hour later, the crew of the Sichem Fernol were able to see that there had indeed been a disaster. A 20-metre white sailing catamaran lay capsized in the breaking waves and nearby, in a red liferaft, a man and woman waved frantically for help.
Within minutes they were hauled aboard and were soon recovering from their ordeal with warm blankets and hot drinks. As another freighter was preparing to recover the catamaran, the Intermezzo, and winch it aboard, the Sichem Fernol resumed her course for Brest and the survivors told their story. They were French, they said, brother and sister, Corinne Casper, 48 and Thierry Beille, 51.
They were crewing the Intermezzo for the owner/skipper 67-year-old Andre Le Floc'h, one of France's most experienced yachtsmen, on a passage to Gibraltar when a sudden storm blew up, the catamaran capsized and Le Floc'h was trapped below and drowned. We tried to drag him out of the cabin, Thierry Beille said. But the boat was upside down and he was unconscious. It was impossible to pull him free. But what was accepted as a maritime accident took on a more sinister aspect when ship was contacted by Lisbon coastguards with news that Andre Le Floc'h's body had been recovered from the catamaran. He had not drowned but bludgeoned to death. First reports were that he was already dead when he entered the water, his hands were tied behind his back and a heavy lead belt fixed around his body, presumably to prevent it from being washed ashore. Not surprisingly, when the Sichem Fernol docked in Brest, police were waiting on the quayside to arrest Beille and Casper and charge them with murder. The pair had a strange history. Adopted by different families when young, they had re-met eight years earlier and had become inseparable, travelling Europe as hippies and eking a precarious living making jewellery and doing casual work.
The summer of 2005 found them in Portugal looking for sites for a hang-gliding venture and down to their last 1,000 Euros, when while having a coffee in a Faro cafe, they struck up, a conversation with Andre Le Floc'h who had just arrived in Faro in his catamaran He was cruising the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts after retiring from the French civil service and was always on the look-out for crew. He spoke enthusiastically about Intermezzo and how he had bought her cheaply after the former owner had fallen overboard and drowned. He had spent three years completely rebuilding the catamaran and now planned to sail her round the world.
I love sailing," he told his new-found friends. So do I, Thierry Beille, explaining that he was planning to work on charter yachts in the West Indies and had done several Atlantic crossings. As it turned out, he had never even been aboard a yacht. Delighted to have met an experienced sailor, Le Floc'h suggested the couple should crew for him on the next leg of his voyage. They agreed and said they didn't want to be paid. Despite an unpromising weather forecast which predicted rough weather, Le Floc'h decided to leave next day. His new crew came aboard with a small mountain of luggage, and a hang-glider. They also brought their dog which later disappeared in the storm.
When the skipper complained about the quantity of luggage, Beille said that he had sailed much more expensive boats than the catamaran and that Intermezzo was poorly provided with storage space. He also criticised Le Floc'h's handling of the boat, despite the fact that the old seadog had a high reputation in French sailing circles and had done several epic voyages. In a statement to Portuguese police, the brother and sister explained what they claimed happened next. They alleged that on the first night at sea, Le Floc'h burst into Corinne Casper's cabin while she was asleep and tried to rape her, saying: Now you will pay the price of the voyage.
Thierry Beille took up the story. In a statement he claimed: "I was at the wheel when I heard Corinne cry out. I left the wheel and went down below to see what was happening.
"I found Le Floc'h attacking Corinne and tried to pull him away. When he pulled a knife, Corinne hit him with a casserole dish and we got him on to a bunk. I had to tie him, up to retrain him. We made him swallow tranquillisers to calm his aggression and then we decided to take the boat back to port so that we could report Le Floc'h to the authorities. The statement continued that when the wind increased later that night the sails jammed and couldn't be hauled down. When conditions deteriorated the boat became unmanageable and eventually capsized. After failing to rescue the skipper, Casper and Beille took to the life-raft and radioed for help.
When the case came to court in Lisbon, the prosecution claimed that there was absolutely no medical evidence of attempted rape and that the storm had thwarted an attempt by Casper and Beille to steal the boat and dispose of the owner. A phone call made by Corinne Casper before she and her brother boarded the yacht and traced by police, apparently showed that she was making inquiries about transferring ownership of the Intermezzo. This, said the prosecution, was proof that the couple were planning to seize the boat and pass themselves off as its legal owners.
The court heard evidence from friends and family of Andre Le Floc'h that he was a quiet, withdrawn and decent man who would never behave in the way alleged. He was a devoted husband and father who enjoyed sailing and liked companionship on his voyages. The prosecution's case was that the couple attempted to steal the catamaran to use it for smuggling arms or drugs — Beille had previous convictions for theft and violence. In court Corinne Casper said that her story was absolutely true.
She said: "I was asleep when I was attacked and I was terrified. Afterwards we didn't know what to do. We figured that if the skipper was dead it might be thought that we were to blame. We never had any intention of killing him. He just went mad and we were trying to protect ourselves. There was no such thing as a lead belt involved. "We are innocent. He attacked us on the boat, there was a scuffle and the next thing that happened was that the storm turned the boat over. Now they're saying we're the guilty ones, which just isn't true.
Found guilty of murdering Andre Le Floc'h, Beille and Casper were each jailed for 24 years. Observers say that the case bears an uncanny resemblance to the Nicole Kidman film Dead Calm in which a yacht skipper is left to die by criminals who steal his boat. But Corinne Casper and Thierry Beille vehemently deny that they have seen the film. They say they never go to the movies.