Yachtsmen rescued from makeshift raft

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The Independent Online
THREE MEN were dramatically rescued early yesterday as the makeshift raft they had lashed together when their racing catamaran broke up in heavy seas in the Bristol Channel was about to fall apart.

An RAF rescue helicopter arrived as the three crew-members from the yacht, who had already spent six hours in freezing waters off the north Somerset coast, had concluded they had only a slim chance of surviving.

They fired their last flare as the helicopter patrolled overhead in the darkness, and were winched one by one onto the aircraft as the water sloshed ankle-deep over their raft.

A spokesman for Swansea Coastguard, which co-ordinated the rescue on Saturday night, praised the sailors for their professionalism in preparing for such emergencies and for staying with their wrecked craft despite being driven about 20 miles by wind and tide.

Watch Manager Lee Haigh said: "This was a very close escape for these men. They were clearly well organised for such a trip and their preparation possibly saved their lives."

The yachtsmen, aero engineers Nigel Wright, 38, from Redland and Richard Varvill, 36, and university lecturer Dibrios Christopolous, were out for a day's sailing in their 15ft vessel.

But within half an hour of leaving Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, they were in heavy seas and strong winds and decided to return.

Mr Christopolous said the 10-year-old boat was tacking back to Burnham when the crossbeams collapsed and one of the twin hulls broke up.

The crew - all experienced sailors and each wearing protective clothing and a lifejacket - took down the mast and lashed it to form a triangle- shaped raft with the hull pieces.

They triggered an emergency beacon which broadcast a satellite signal and fired flares in attempts to alert passing craft or shore watchers.

In the ensuing hours they alternatively stood, sat on or hung on to the makeshift raft.It was completely dark when they heard the rescue helicopter overhead and fired their last major flare.

Mr Christopolous said: "The raft was going down fast and I think we had no more than an hour left. I did not think we would make it through the night. We decided our chances were slim."