Rescue teams abandon sea search, 'baffled' by yacht's disappearance

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Coastguards abandoned the search for a yacht missing in the North Sea last night as fears grew that the crew of four had perished.

Coastguards abandoned the search for a yacht missing in the North Sea last night as fears grew that the crew of four had perished.

The three-day search for the 28ft Tuila by British and Dutch rescue teams was called off shortly after 4pm as the authorities declared themselves "baffled" at the disappearance.

Aircraft and boats used in the operation will only be sent out again if there is a sighting of the vessel - which left the Dutch port of Ijmuiden seven days ago bound for the Suffolk coast - or wreckage.

The boat was carrying three postgraduate Cambridge University students, Chris McMenemy, 26, James Chew, 22, and Carol Smith, 23, and the Tuila's experienced skipper and owner, Adam Clackson, 58, a married man, of Cambridge.

Senior coastguard officers insisted the four remained listed as missing but privately admitted it was increasingly likely that they have drowned, possibly in a night-time collision with a large merchant ship.

Mark Clark, spokesman for the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said: "The decision has been taken to call off the search. We have contacted the families of those missing to tell them of our intentions. The Tuila was crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world with more than 400 ships passing its length and 200 ferries crossing every day. It is impossible that they wouldn't have been spotted. We remain baffled as to their whereabouts and as time has gone on we have obviously become less optimistic."

Dutch coastguards had earlier discounted a sighting of debris, thought to include red seat cushions similar to those on board the Twister-class yacht, after it was relocated some 30 miles off the coast of the Netherlands. The debris had been spotted by the crew of a motor cruiser on Saturday along the route presumed to have been followed by the Tuila but on closer examination it was found to be fishing waste.

Coastguards are still exploring the possibility that the Tuila has diverted to another port, although extensive checks have unearthed no trace.

A massive search operation was launched last weekend after the British yacht failed to arrive as expected at its destination on the river Orwell, near Ipswich, Suffolk, on Friday.

Seven lifeboats, five fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter were used in the search over more than 6,500 square miles of the North Sea.

Reaction to the decision to call off the operation among relatives was mixed. Simon Clackson, the younger brother of Mr Clackson, said: "For us now it is a difficult time of waiting and we're just hoping that some indication of what happened will emerge. Whatever did happen it is important for us that something is found."

Carol Smith, 48, whose daughter Carol was the most experienced seafarer among the students, said her family was barely coping as they waited for news at their home in Tamworth, Staffordshire. "I can't do or say anything now to help. It is a complete feeling of helplessness."