Yacht rescue skipper tells of 'rogue wave' terror

The skipper of a racing yacht has described the moment a "rogue wave" tore off its mast and left the crew stranded in the Atlantic Ocean for nearly two days.

The 60ft Clyde Challenger yacht was battered in stormy conditions as it was returning to the UK from a four-and-a-half month trip and had to be rescued by a Royal Navy warship.

Its crew of 13 Britons and one American waited 20 hours for HMS Dragon to reach them as the Type 45 destroyer was diverted 500 miles from a routine deployment.

Roy Graham, the Challenger's skipper, said the problems began five days after leaving the Azores, in the mid-Atlantic, when a large wave threw the yacht into chaos on Thursday evening.

The 66-year-old Scot told the Press Association: "We lost our mast and the rigging, that was the problem.

"We got hit with a rogue wave coming in the opposite direction.

"It hit us and knocked us over and dragged the crosstrees into the water, which dragged the mast into the water and snapped it at deck level."

Four crew members were clipped on deck at the time but Mr Graham said they would have been submerged for several seconds, adding: "To them it probably felt like minutes."

And he said he had fears for the crew's safety and was relieved when he was told on Friday the Royal Navy was en route.

The professional sailor said: "There were maybe a few doubts in my mind but when I knew HMS Dragon was coming for us, I knew it was going to be a positive outcome.

"We are really pleased the Navy took up the challenge to come and rescue us."

Travelling at a top speed of around 30 knots, the warship arrived at the yacht's position - some 610 miles south west of Land's End - at around 2.30pm on Saturday.

The operation concluded at around 5pm and all crew members were said to be "alive and well".

They were treated for "bumps and bruises" and given hot food, including steak and chips, as well as the chance to call their families once on board the vessel.

Crew member Elisabeth Ligethy, from Glasgow, said she had been below deck and was thrown 10ft when the wave hit the yacht.

The 62-year-old, who retired shortly before setting off on sailing tour last year, praised the Navy crew for the rescue, saying: "The hospitality extended to us just beggars belief."

The UK Coastguard said it received an emergency beacon alert at 8pm on Thursday and several vessels responded to a call for assistance before an RAF C130 Hercules was scrambled to the scene on Friday morning.

US Air Force jets from RAF Mildenhall joined the search, while chemical tanker CPO Finland attempted to rescue the crew three times but was hampered by bad weather.

HMS Dragon Captain Craig Wood said he was "proud" of the actions of the seamen who operated the rescue boats and praised the "really professional" Challenger sailors.

He said: "It was pretty miserable conditions and pretty marginal conditions for what we wanted to do.

"This was about as challenging as we would like to put them (sea boat teams) out in.

"We rewrote a couple of pages of the textbook today but it could not have gone any better. Their families know they are safe in the hands of the Royal Navy.

Petty Officer Max Grosse, chief bosun's mate on board HMS Dragon, said the yacht was in a "desperate state" after 48 hours drifting in treacherous conditions.

"Despite racing through the night we only had three hours of daylight remaining in which to safely remove the crew," he added.

A Maritime and Coastguard Agency spokeswoman said: "HM Coastguard would like to thank all those that took part in providing a successful outcome to this complex long range search and rescue mission."

The Clyde Challenger, which is owned by Lewis Learning Ltd, was designed and built to compete in the Clipper round-the-world yacht race and is also used for corporate, private and charity charters, according to its website.

A statement on the company's Facebook page said: "We are extremely grateful for this news and extend huge thanks to all those involved in standing over the yacht, organising and executing the safe transfer of the crew."

The Challenger, which is normally berthed in the Clyde estuary, in Scotland, could not be recovered.