Debris found in hunt for yacht

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Coastguards shifted the focus of their search for a missing yacht with three Cambridge University students on board to debris in the North Sea, where the vessel went missing.

Coastguards shifted the focus of their search for a missing yacht with three Cambridge University students on board to debris in the North Sea, where the vessel went missing.

Cushions of the same type and colour as those on the Tuila were reported seen in the North Sea by people on a motor cruiser.

A spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said it was too soon to say whether they were from the missing vessel.

Despite a second day of searches by a Nimrod aeroplane from RAF Kinloss, a helicopter from RAF Wattisham and Dutch rescue boats, the Tuila has not been spotted.

The three students on board are Chris McMenemy, 26, Carol Smith, 23, and 22-year-old James Chew.

They set off from the Dutch port of Ijmuiden last Tuesday, but no contact has been made with the vessel since Friday, said Mark Clark from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

"What we are doing now is checking any debris that we see. It is part and parcel of the main operation, but we are giving more interest to the debris now - we cannot ignore it."

He stressed that no specific debris had been found.

The RAF Nimrod search was being called off tonight. Mr Clark said UK coastguards were liaising with Dutch rescuers to decide how the search would develop tomorrow.

Overnight, electronic messages would continue to be broadcast in an attempt to catch the attention of the ship's crew.

Mr Clark said it was a "mystery" that the ship had not been spotted by theNimrod.

Although it is possible the ship had lost power, and therefore its radio contact, Mr Clark said: "It would be very surprising if they have not seen us with all the activity and noise we are making in the area."

The 28ft yacht was being skippered by experienced sailor Adam Clackson, in his late 50s and the owner of the yacht who had sought a volunteer crew to help him sail it to Britain.

Mr Clark said weather conditions in the North Sea - which were very good - should have posed no problems to the vessel or its crew.

The ship was not legally required to carry beacons or flares to attract attention in an emergency. "But a man of Mr Clackson's experience would surely have taken all the correct precautions," Mr Clark said.

Of the three students, Miss Smith, a biochemistry postgraduate, is believed to have a coastal skipper's licence, which is granted by the Royal Yachting Association to sailors with more than 30 days, 800 miles and 12 hours of night sailing experience.

But geography student Chris McMenemy has never sailed on the sea before, his girlfriend, Christy Karras said.

"He has not sailed on the open ocean before and he has not had much practical sailing experience," she said.

"I have been very worried. I was expecting him back on Wednesday or Thursday but he did not show up."

Despite her fears, she said remained hopeful.

"On board are some very resourceful and intelligent people," she said.

The International Relations Cambridge University postgraduate, in her mid-20s from Utah, USA, added: "Chris is quite an adventurous type. He had been to Nepal and is expecting to spend next year in India doing research as part of his PhD."

The students and skipper are all members of Cambridge University's Cruising Club.

Peter Chew, the father of pharmacology student James, from Wysall, Nottingham, said the family was still hopeful the boat would be found.

"We are trying to stay optimistic, though it's hard at times," he said.

Mr Chew, a research engineer for PowerGen, said James had planned to celebrate his 22nd birthday at the weekend with friends, but he did not come home.

James became an able seaman about a year and a half ago and has done in-shore exams and sailed in the Solent.

"We are bearing up, just about, at the moment. We live in hope," his father said.

Mr Clackson's brother Simon said he was a very experienced sailor.

"He has done all kinds of sailing and probably sailed 50,000 miles," he said.

Mr Clackson, who has a wife and children, lives in Cambridge. His family have not heard from him since he left Holland.

A spokeswoman from Cambridge University said the three students were postgraduates.

"We remain hopeful and continue to watch the situation very closely," she said.

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