Helicopters, boats search for missing Australian yacht crew
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Rescuers in helicopters and boats scanned the seas Saturday for the missing crew of a catamaran found deserted off the Great Barrier Reef -- with the sails up, engine running and food on the table.
The three-member crew was last seen Sunday leaving the northeastern town of Airlie Beach. On Wednesday, a coastal patrol plane spotted their 40-foot catamaran drifting aimlessly, its headsail battered and torn, about 95 miles offshore. Rescue workers who reached the boat early Friday confirmed no one was aboard.
The Australian newspaper's Saturday edition quoted police as saying the crew probably fell overboard, but authorities refused to confirm that report when contacted by The Associated Press.
Police launched a massive sea and air rescue Friday spanning a stretch of coast around 700 nautical miles long, but found no trace of the missing men.
The search resumed at first light Saturday, with two helicopters, two volunteer rescue boats, and water police scouring a narrower stretch of ocean from the town of Bowen south to Airlie Beach, where officials believe the men may have fallen overboard.
Marine authorities towed the Kaz II back to shore overnight, and forensic inspectors began examining the vessel's global positioning system and laptops early Saturday for clues about the three missing crew members.
"Sometime that day (Sunday) the vessel may have been tracking in a direction towards an area where some high wind squalls and rough seas were building," police superintendent Roy Wall said Saturday in a statement. "This indicates to us that the men may have been missing from the boat (since) sometime Sunday."
Besides the shredded headsail, there was no indication of any other damage and no distress call had been made.
"They got on board and said the engine was running, the computers were running, there was a laptop set up on the table which was running, the radio was working ... and there was food and utensils set on the table ready to eat, but no sign of the crew," said Jon Hall, a spokesman for Queensland state's Emergency Management office.
"It was a bit strange," he said.
The crew -- Australians aged 56, 63 and 69 -- had set out Sunday, and was planning to sail around northern Australia to Western Australia state, according to Sharon Davidson of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
Media reports said the missing men are skipper Derek Batten, 56, and two of his neighbors -- brothers named Peter and James Tunstead, ages 69 and 63, from Western Australia state's capital, Perth. Police would not confirm their identities.
The men are reportedly keen fishermen.
Greg Connor, a forecaster with the Bureau of Meteorology, said the sailors would have faced moderate southeasterly winds of about 22 mph, typical weather for this time of year.
"It would have been excellent sailing conditions," he said. "There's no reason to believe this is a weather related incident."
Keryn Grey, daughter of James Tunstead, told the Seven Network television on Friday her family was hoping the three were in a dinghy and that the catamaran had drifted away because they forgot to anchor it.
"That's what we are hoping, that they forgot to anchor it (the catamaran) and it's drifted off -- the three idiots -- and (they have) not been able to get back to it," she said.
But emergency officials said a dinghy was found on board the catamaran, along with its emergency beacon and three life jackets.
Grey said the trip was supposed to take six to eight weeks.
"They were just going to stop every night, anchor close to shore all the way back around the top and down the coast," she said. "It was going to be their trip of a lifetime."
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