Sailing: Crew leaves £3m British race yacht leaking and adrift in the Atlantic

The crew of a £3m British yacht abandoned ship last night after it was swamped by 23ft-high waves during force eight gales in the Atlantic, leaving it rudderless and adrift.

The crew of a £3m British yacht abandoned ship last night after it was swamped by 23ft-high waves during force eight gales in the Atlantic, leaving it rudderless and adrift.

Leopard of London, a 90ft "super sloop" that is one of the biggest race boats built in Britain since the 1930s, was hundreds of miles from land with water leaking through the hull, no means of steering and more storms on the way.

The boat sailed into gales on its way to Southampton from the Caribbean, where it has spent the winter chartered to wealthy holidaymakers and corporate hospitality firms for £24,000 a week.

As it came down one of the waves on Tuesday, the rudder broke, holing the bottom of the boat and rendering the vessel uncontrollable. The seven-strong crew, including three Britons and three Australians, sent a mayday to Falmouth coastguards, while they used hand pumps to bail out water that had filled a living area at the head of the boat.

Coastguards sent out a distress signal to all vessels in the area and two merchant ships went to Leopard's aid, but when they first reached the yacht, the Australian captain Chris Sherlock ruled the sea was too dangerous to risk getting into life-rafts. The crew tried to contain the leak in one aft compartment by pumping the water out but, despite their efforts, coastguards feared the boat would sink if conditions worsened. The main cabin was flooding slowly when they decided to leave, coastguards said last night.

The crew members left the yacht at about 8pm during calmer weather, aware that forecasters were predicting up to five days of gales reaching force nine strength.

They were picked up from their lifeboat by a Liberian-registered merchant vessel, Kurzeme, which had pulled alongside Leopard to help evacuate the yacht. The crew were being taken to La Coruña, in Spain, last night and no one was hurt in the operation, the owners said.

The yacht was left stranded 600 miles south-west of England and 400 miles north-east of the Azores, with at least a 48-hour wait before a tug boat from Falmouth arrives to try to retrieve the vessel.

John Bremner, of Ocean Marine Yacht Management, based in Southampton, said he was optimistic that the yacht, which he said had only a "minor leak" would remain afloat until the tug arrived some time tomorrow morning.

He said the tug crew would face difficulties getting people and a line on to the stricken vessel because of the anticipated bad weather conditions. He said the plan was for the tug to remain alongside the yacht until the weather improves for long enough to secure a line between both vessels and then to tow it to a small port near La Coruña.

"If the weather was not forecast to get worse there would be no question of taking the crew off," he said. "When the vessel was left, it was sound, shut up and floating and should, barring unforeseen circumstances, be still there floating on Friday morning."

Developed by the California-based yacht makers Reichel-Pugh, and built in Southampton, the Leopard is a carbon-fibre monohull which used aircraft technology to create an "ultra light" craft capable of beating the fastest yachts in the world. The interior was a custom design by the Hampshire architects and yacht designers Ken Feivokh, and was intended to provide a standard of luxury which meant it could be offered for top-of-the-range charters with few alterationsafter competing in races.

It was built for Michael Slade, chief executive of the London property developers Helical Bar and owner of Ocean Marine, and was widely acclaimed as the star vessel at Cowes Week last year, breaking the record in the Round the Isle of Wight race.

Its racing crews have included the Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie and the round-the-world solo yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur.

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