Freed yacht crew apologise at family reunion

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The Independent Online

The British sailors freed after a week in Iranian custody apologised to their families as they were reunited for the first time since their ordeal today.

As four of the five men arrived at Heathrow Airport today, they said they were embarrassed over the trouble they had caused and sorry for everything they had put their families through.

The crew of the Kingdom of Bahrain, who were detained after their yacht strayed into Iranian waters as they headed from Bahrain to Dubai, saw their families for the first time since being freed in an emotional reunion at a nearby hotel.

Skipper Oliver Smith, 31, from Southampton, said: "It's great to be back. Initially, when we first got stopped, it was not very nice to be blindfolded and taken back to be questioned.

"As time went by, the guys treated us very well. There was no animosity at all."

He added that the team was "hoping to go back out to the Gulf, get the boat fixed up and start racing again".

Sailor Oliver Young, 21, added : "We had a bit of a shocker really. We are sorry for everything we've put our families through, and thanks to everyone."

The pair arrived back with fellow crew members Sam Usher, 26, and Luke Porter, 21, following a six-hour flight from Dubai.

Mr Porter said he was looking forward to having a "few drinks" with friends and family, and added: "It was a new experience. It was a learning curve. I am grateful to be back."

The sailors had been accompanied on the yacht by David Bloomer, a radio journalist based in Bahrain, who did not fly into London with them today.

Speaking just 15 minutes after greeting her son Luke, Beverley Porter said: "I think I let out a bit of a scream when he walked in through the door, he was the first one I saw.

"I don't think I've moved quite so quickly in a long, long time. It's been fantastic. He looked great.

"I think I thought he was going to have changed, but he just said, 'I'm ok'.

"I said to him, 'I haven't slept for seven nights and you're just telling me, I'm ok'."

She said the family ran the Beachlands Hotel in Weston super Mare and it was back to business tonight.

Mrs Porter, 48, joked that Luke would be "washing up to pay penance".

She went on: "It's a huge relief. Everybody feels exactly the same.

"It will maybe take a few days to set in and then it might hit back a bit, but everybody's got very supportive families and I'm sure they will be fine."

Asked about their plans for the next few days, she said: "It's time to relax, and maybe he'll get cottage pie, his favourite.

"I'll probably give him 24 hours before I start yelling at him to tidy up after himself again."

Mr Smith's father Edwin said: "It's the difference between seeing him on the television, which we've been doing a lot of over these last few days, and being able to walk up to him, poke him in the ribs, and say, 'Why did you do that you silly bugger?'."

The sailor greeted his parents with a simple, 'Hi, good to see you' and was now planning to relax, his father said.

"He's going to go home, unwind probably, and we'll go and spend the day with him to get reacquainted," Mr Smith, of Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, said.

"But as his mother always says, 'He's so chilled he's horizontal'."

He went on: "It's been a long exercise in holding our breath recently, and my wife's found all the attention from the media very stressful."

Referring to the sailors' experience, he said: "They were in a bubble, dealing with the people on the ground, and didn't realise all this was going on around them.

"They've walked back into the real world now."

Speaking at Heathrow as the sailors arrived today, Sail Bahrain chairman Andrew Pindar said they made an "innocent mistake" and that there was a "high degree of embarrassment" among the group.

"They're all top-flight professional sailors," he said.

"It's very difficult if you're a sailor and you don't have things marked on a chart to know you've made a mistake.

"They're embarrassed that they've created a problem for other people. The first thing they said was 'Sorry for giving people grey hairs'.

"They were more concerned for other people than for themselves."

Mr Pindar went on: "Something went wrong, but it doesn't stop you going back. These guys want to sail the ocean. They're all professional sailors with ambitions to take part in other ocean races."

The sailors flew back today with Team Pindar team leader Nick Crabtree from Dubai, with Emirates, and arrived shortly after 7am.

He hugged the sailors as they came through the arrivals lounge, telling them it was good to see them.

He joked that Mr Usher was now hoping to get free beer for life at his local pub, the Leeds Arms in Scarborough.

Mr Usher said it had been "an experience" and that he was keen to see friends and relatives.

He said: "There were certainly times where all of us had times where we were frightened, but the nice thing is being such a nice, strong team that we could all rely on each other to pull us through."

Mr Smith agreed that their teamwork, and being used to confined spaces, was an advantage.

"That certainly helped us all get through it," he said.

Asked if he was pleased they had been freed so soon, he added: "I wouldn't say it felt soon, but that morning we were hoping that something might start to happen."

He said they were given bread, water and beans before sailing on to Dubai, and added: "They fed us very well when we were there. They looked after us well."

During a press conference at the Dubai International Marine Club after their release on Wednesday, Mr Smith said it was not clear from their charts that the yacht had sailed into Iranian waters.

He said he was the only one of the group who was not blindfolded after they were stopped because he had to steer the boat.

Once on the Iranian mainland, the crew said they were not allowed to leave the room where they were being held without being accompanied by a guard, but were taken to make checks on their yacht.

They were given the use of a chess board and darts and were sometimes allowed outside during the evenings.

The guards also left the door open as the group ate meals to let fresh air into their room, they said.

The yacht strayed into Iranian waters as they tried to avoid oil rigs in the area, the team said.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband welcomed the end to the men's "ordeal", saying the move to free them by the Iranian authorities was proof that "diplomacy can work".