How we ended up all at sea, by rescued family

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As the rescued Newman family returned to port yesterday on a rather bigger ship than they had anticipated - the 20,600-ton aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious - experts debated the merit of long voyages by sailors with little or no experience.

The dream of Don and Yvonne Newman to sail around the world - with their six-year-old son, Daniel, - in their 36ft Touchdown was brutally destroyed by appalling weather in the Bay of Biscay.

Sea King helicopters from Illustrious had to winch the family to safety after they had endured three storm-tossed days on mountainous waves.

The family, who had sold their house and given up their jobs to sail round the world, set off from Lowestoft in July and had been heading for Gibraltar.

While Illustrious steamed into Portsmouth harbour, Mrs Newman, who was severely sea-sick and confined to her bed for three days, described their ordeal and paid tribute to their helicopter crew rescuers.

"The weather was so bad it took four attempts for them to even get on to the yacht. But the determination on the man's face was amazing. He gritted his teeth and just carried on."

Mrs Newman added: "All I wanted to do was get Daniel off the yacht. He hadn't eaten for three days and I was just so worried."

Meanwhile, sailing instructor Les Rant, a former neighbour of the Newmans, said he was surprised they had decided to set sail on a long trip because of their lack of experience and lack of training.

He said: "I thought they were being ambitious. I think they only brought the boat around from the south coast of England at the end of last year."

A spokeswoman for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution said anyone setting sail with little or no experience was "unwise".

Spokeswoman Sue Denny said: "We try to educate people who use the sea, by giving advice, and we always suggest people go on training courses before sailing."

However, Robin Sjoberg, cruising manager at the Royal Yachting Association said the family had responded correctly to atrocious conditions they had no control over, adding that there was little they could have done to prevent the disaster.

"They were in a force nine in the Bay of Biscay," he said. "A situation with 50ft waves crashing around your 36ft boat is not a nice experience."

And Mr Newman defended the family's decision to sail. "We had taken a five-day forecast and this weather wasn't predicted." He added: "We are absolutely shattered. This was our home and we have lost everything."

Michael Streeter