Ferry collision suspected after sailors' bodies found

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Police investigating the deaths of three sailors whose yacht sunk in mysterious circumstances were last night checking the hull of a P&O ferry for evidence of a collision.

Detectives are investigating whether the P&O vessel, the Pride of Bilbao, hit the 25ft yacht Ouzo off the Isle of Wight earlier this month. James Meaby and Rupert Saunders, both 36, from Tooting, south London, and Jason Downer, 35, from Kent, were found drowned, but their boat has not been recovered.

Investigators were due to board the Pride of Bilbao as it arrived at Portsmouth yesterday. This follows what police described as "something of interest" found on the ferry's black box, which records the ship's movements and conversations taking place on the bridge.

A Hampshire Police spokeswoman said detectives were to examine the hull of the ship for damage from a launch. She added that no arrests had been made. She stressed that the Pride of Bilbao was one of several vessels that were being investigated. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has recovered an undisclosed number of black boxes from ferry companies.

The three dead men, who were described as experienced sailors, left Bembridge on the Isle of Wight on Sunday 20 August to sail to south Devon for a regatta at Dartmouth. The alarm was raised when the body of Mr Meaby was spotted in the water by a fishing boat, the Malaki, 10 miles south of the Isle of Wight on Tuesday last week. The other two men were found the following day.

All three men were wearing lifejackets. No distress call was recorded.

Their yacht, which was owned and skippered by Mr Saunders, has yet to be found. The coastguard said the cause of the yacht's disappearance was not clear but possibilities included a collision with a large ship.

P&O Ferries confirmed yesterday that it had handed over the black box from the Pride of Bilbao.

A spokeswoman for Hampshire Police said: "It must be stressed at this time the investigation is looking at all ships in the area on the relevant date of 20 August."

A P&O Ferries spokesman said: "We are co-operating fully with the MAIB."