Mon, Apr 23, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Australian officials call off search for `ghost yacht' crew

AFP , SYDNEY

Australian officials suspended their search yesterday for three men missing from a ghost yacht found drifting off the northeast coast, amid reports the trio had sailed into a fierce storm.

The catamaran was found on Friday near the Great Barrier Reef, with engines running and a table laid for a meal but no one aboard.

Officials said they were baffled by the fate of the crew but yesterday called off the search, admitting that the chances of finding them alive had faded.

"Unless information comes in, in terms of sightings or something like that, the search has been suspended," a police spokeswoman said.

The head of the rescue operation, Phil Dowler, said it was unlikely that the men were still alive.

"Unfortunately up to now it's supposedly a week since they've gone missing -- it's quite difficult to survive without adequate food or water," he told state radio.

According to a report in the Sun-Herald, police believe skipper Derek Batten, 56, Peter Tunstead, 69, and his brother James Tunstead, 63, may have been swept overboard during a storm last Sunday.

"Initial investigations indicate that some time that day the vessel may have been tracking in a direction towards an area where some high-wind squalls and rough seas were building," police official Roy Wall told the paper.

Forensic experts who searched the Kaz II yacht after it was towed into Townsville on Saturday confirmed that it had a badly torn sail but found nothing else to indicate what happened to the men.

Relatives of the sailors said they would continue to hope their loved ones were alive.

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