Twenty miles off the coast, last two empty life rafts are found

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Hope of finding seven fishermen, including two brothers and their cousin, disappeared yesterday when rescue teams found the last of two life rafts floating 20 miles east of the Isle of Man coast.

Hope of finding seven fishermen, including two brothers and their cousin, disappeared yesterday when rescue teams found the last of two life rafts floating 20 miles east of the Isle of Man coast.

The discovery shattered any hope that the crew of the scallop dredger Solway Harvester might have survived a tragedy which hit so suddenly, at about 6pm on Tuesday, that they had not even managed to remove the raft from its white, metal canister and inflate it.

Rescuers searched for the vessel through the night, in gales which reached force nine. Piece by piece, they recovered debris which foretold the inevitable.

They found the first of the vessel's life rafts, at 1.30am yesterday, using thermal imaging equipment on an Irish rescue helicopter. An hour later, a fluorescent orange life ring was picked up.

The discovery of the second raft by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Bayleaf killed the last vestige of hope that any of the men might be found alive. As the men would have survived in the icy water for 30 minutes at best, rescuers are now seeking just debris and bodies. By 8am, the search area was reduced from 800sq miles to 35sq miles. In Ramsey, Isle of Man, the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, which had anticipated caring for the crew of the 21metre craft, prepared to help the bereaved instead.

The vessel should have been back in port at Kirkcudbright on the Solway Firth six hours earlier, at 2am yesterday. Instead at 5.40pm on Tuesday, it called its sister boat, the Tobrach-n, from a position 15 miles east of the Isle of Man, to say it was heading for cover in Ramsey before heading for home.

At 7.20pm, a last signal was detected from the vessel's emergency positioning radio beacon system 11 miles south-east of the island. An astonishing operation then ensued in abysmal conditions. Lifeboats from Workington, Cumbria, and Liverpool, as well as Ramsey, Douglas and Port St Mary on the Isle of Man, were alerted between 6pm and 8.30pm. Rescue helicopters flew in from Prestwick in Ayrshire and RAF Valley, North Wales.

A total of 15 fishing vessels abandoned their tasks to help. So too did 16 merchant ships - some of which were themselves heading for shelter. The Ben Mychree, an Isle of Man ferry with 98 passengers and 38 crew on board, was among them. So too was the Bayleaf, which commanded the operation.

The Irish Air Corps helicopter, with its heat-seeking capability, was enlisted along with a fixed wing plane from the Royal Ulster Constabulary. But until 10pm, when the wind began to drop, their task was almost impossible. Workington lifeboatmen, on exercise at 6pm on Tuesday when they heard the vessel was missing, were called into the search an hour later. They tried and failed to punch their way through the wind.

"The conditions were atrocious, absolutely atrocious," said Bob McLaughlin, honourary secretary of the lifeboat. "Crew members were thrown about and bruised." Helicopters could only search downwind, with 80 to 90-yard visibility in heavy driving rain. One was forced to land after the wind smashed in its windows.

Final confirmation of the tragedy came just before 2pm yesterday, when Liverpool Coastguard said the Solway Harvester had been located on the sea bed, 30 metres beneath the waves, by a vessel called Humber Surveyor.

Sonar equipment confirmed the sighting, a mile and a half from the spot where the stricken vessel's distress beacon was last detected.

Amid unconfirmed rumours last night that the vessel may have hit debris, Don McDonald, the Coastguard's district controller, said the disaster must be attributed to the weather. "Accidents in a fishing community are a known factor. We are dealing with the sea and if the sea will overpower a vessel, no matter how rigid safety is, we will never combat that. It's a sad fact of life," he said.