Impromptu swim may have led to tourist deaths

Tour firm says boat was hit by storm after being delayed for passengers to take a dip
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The families of two young friends who drowned off the coast of Vietnam after their packed tourist boat capsized in a storm paid emotional tributes to them yesterday.

Tim Roney, 21, and Karen Puddifoot, 27, both from Hertfordshire, were taking part in a year-long round-the-world cycling trip to raise money for the British Lung Foundation and had stopped off in Halong Bay, one of the Asian country's most spectacular beauty spots.

The pair died on Thursday night alongside a French man and two Vietnamese people when their vessel overturned in strong winds and heavy rain, with 25 passengers and seven crew members on board.

In a statement, Mr Roney's family said: "We cannot believe what has happened. There are no words to describe what we are going through. Tim meant so much to us and we will miss him so much.

"Tim was extremely sociable, talented and adventurous and always had a smile on his face. We are sure he would have planned similar trips in the future."

Another statement, issued by Ms Puddifoot's family, read: "Karen was extremely popular and had a lot of friends. She was talented, hard working, independent, strong-willed and brave. Losing Karen has left a deep hole in our family.

"Karen will be deeply, deeply missed by us, her grandparents and her friends. Our family and friends have been hugely supportive during this sad time and we are very grateful to them."

The pair set off on their round-the-world cycling tour in June, and had aimed to travel 21,000 miles through 12 countries.

Most of the people on board the boat, which was owned by a cruise company called Bien Mo, were rescued by nearby vessels shortly after it capsized. Some were later treated in hospital for shock and hypothermia.

Mai Nguyen, of tour operator Tropical Sails, said she thought the boat had been delayed after some of the tourists decided to go for a swim. This meant it was still out at sea after dark, when cruise boats are supposed to be back in harbour or have anchored in a sheltered spot.

"Normally, the Halong Bay management wants all boats to be back in the harbour before it gets dark at around 6pm," she said. "The boat was still out in the bay at 7pm, which is very late to be cruising."

However, another local cruise manager, Sonny Bui, said the storm had broken suddenly and had taken everyone in the area by surprise.

"It never happened like this before," he said. "There was no warning. [Tour operators] usually hear of typhoons and strong winds in the weather forecast, but this was a whirlwind that only lasted for 15 or 20 minutes, and nobody knew about it."

According to reports, the boat was not insured and had only undergone one voyage prior to the accident to test its seaworthiness. British Embassy officials travelled to the bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin 100 miles east of Hanoi, to help officials contact their families.

Halong Bay is one of Vietnam's most popular tourist destinations, attracting more than 2.5m people last year. A Unesco World Heritage site, the area is famous for its 1,600 islands and islets, spectacular limestone pillars and caves.

The British Lung Foundation said it was "very saddened" by the deaths of the two young travellers, who it said had been "great supporters" of the charity and its work.