Debris found in search for students missing at sea

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Debris has been found on the route being taken by a yacht carrying four people, including three Cambridge University students. The floating wreckage including seat cushions was noticed in the North Sea by the crew of a motor cruiser 30 miles off the Dutch coast on Saturday but was not reported until yesterday.

Debris has been found on the route being taken by a yacht carrying four people, including three Cambridge University students. The floating wreckage including seat cushions was noticed in the North Sea by the crew of a motor cruiser 30 miles off the Dutch coast on Saturday but was not reported until yesterday.

Coastguards said it was too early to say whether the debris belonged to the 28ft vessel Tuila, which set off from the Dutch port of Ijmuiden for the river Orwell in Suffolk six days ago. It has been listed as missing since Friday. On board were students Chris McMenemy, 26, Carol Smith, 23, and James Chew, 22, with the boat's experienced skipper and owner, Adam Clackson, 58.

A search involving an RAF Nimrod, a Sea King helicopter and a Dutch coastguard aircraft was called off shortly after 5pm yesterday when fog and mist covered the area. The Dutch aircraft stayed airborne for a further two hours to try to confirm the sighting of the debris.

Early hopes among relatives of those missing and searchers that the craft may have diverted to another port or been waylaid by engine failure gave way to a more sombre mood.

Mark Clark of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: "As time goes on, it becomes more likely that this is going to have a sad ending. Our feelings are very much with the families of those missing."

The search, which was due to restart at first light today, is being conducted over an area of 6,500 square miles. Radio messages were being sent overnight to try to raise the crew of the yacht, which was not legally required to carry homing beacons or flares to attract attention in an emergency.

Among the scenarios being considered by the search team is that the Tuila may have collided with a larger vessel as it crossed some of the busiest shipping lanes in Europe. The seat cushions in the debris spotted on Saturday were of a type used in vessels similar to the missing yacht but coastguards said such sightings of floating rubbish were common.

Relatives of the graduate students, all keen sailors and members of the Cambridge University cruising club, insisted it was still possible they could be found alive.

Peter Chew said his son was in the first year of a PhD in pharmacology at Sidney Sussex College and was a keen sportsman. "We are trying to stay optimistic, though it's hard at times," he said from the family home in Wysall, Nottinghamshire. "James gets enthusiasms for things and he goes and does them like many other lads his age."

Christy Karras, 26, the girlfriend of Chris McMenemy, said she had received a postcard since his departure saying he would see her this week "providing there is no need for a mayday message".

"I've been getting no sleep at all," she said. "I went to Chris's room last night so I was surrounded by his books and his other things. When Chris comes back I'm going to hug him and not let him go." Mr McMenemy, a graduate in natural sciences whose family lives in Canada, had never sailed at sea before.

But Carol Smith, a biochemistry PhD student at Tees College, has a coastal skipper's licence from the Royal Yachting Association. Her mother, also called Carol, said from the family home in Tamworth, Staffordshire: "It's quite possible they became somewhat becalmed and may have anchored off, and slept and be unaware of the search." But, she said, "it is now getting a bit late for people not to realise there has been some sort of search. We are sailors ourselves, we know what can happen."

The three friends had volunteered for the voyage to Pin Mill, near Ipswich, Suffolk, after Mr Clackson, who lives in Cambridge with his wife and family, sent e-mails to their university club asking for crew.

They flew to Amsterdam at the beginning of last week before leaving port last Tuesday.

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