Cape Town - 140106 - FTI Flyer as well as several other participants of the Cape to Rio yacht race had to head back home after getting caught in bad weather. Pictured is FTI Flyer arriving back at the Royal Cape Yacht Club. Reporter: Zodidi Dano Picture: David Ritchie

Cape Town - The SA Navy on Tuesday continued its rescue mission in search of stricken crews on the Cape2Rio yacht race in the Atlantic Ocean north-west of Cape Town after tragedy struck on the first night out of port.

The fleet set sail at 2pm on Saturday, but by Sunday morning many in the 35-strong fleet had run into violent seas with 50-knot winds and 6m to 8m swells.

By Sunday night, a death had been reported aboard Bille, a 54-foot Angolan entrant that had a broken mast. Crew were injured and António Bartolomeu was swept overboard. Despite his crew’s success in recovering him from the icy ocean, he later died aboard the vessel.

The SAS Isandlwana steamed out of the Port of Cape Town shortly afterwards, with the Royal Cape Yacht Club’s general manager, Marcus Reuter, on board.

By mid-morning on Monday, the navy had found Bille in rough seas and poor visibility over 100 nautical miles off the African coastline.

“All crew have now been transferred to SAS Islandwana,” race chairman Ray Matthews reported.

The skipper had broken ribs and one crew member had suffered lacerations. “Both have been tended to by a medical doctor and all are stable and now sleeping. The navy managed to clear all damaged rigging and have left the vessel to return to later.”

The navy then set out to find Ava.

For 24 hours, the crew’s family had been fearing the worst.

Three generations of Capetonians were aboard the smallest yacht in the fleet, a 31-footer – Colin Horton, 78, a semi-retired toolmaker from Betty’s Bay, his daughter, Belinda, 48, the skipper, and her son, Francois, 25, a crewman – along with the fourth man on board, Ken Botwood, 70, of Table View.

At 4.18pm on Sunday, an Electronic Position Indication Radio Beacon was activated from Ava and a communications black-out followed.

Nearly 18 hours later, Lesley Christie of Fish Hoek – daughter of Colin Horton and Belinda’s sister – was still waiting for news since authorities had first warned her that Ava was in trouble.

“I stayed up all night, monitoring the tracking system – their last electronic ping was on Sunday evening at about 5pm,” she explained on Monday.

Hours of frantic phone calls followed as the vessel’s tracker suggested the craft was adrift, or going round in circles.

“Everything had turned turtle. I even thought their satellite could have been floating in the water, with God-only-knows-what having happened to the crew…” she said.

When she finally received good news from the navy, she said: “It’s an incredible relief. We feared the absolute worst.”

A spokeswoman for Greenpeace, under whose flag the vessel is sailing, reported: “Ava found by SA Navy battered and battery-less and shipping much water but no leaks – all on board okay and firmly on course for Rio.

“Colin won’t have any electrical power for electronic navigation equipment but he’ll navigate by the stars.”

Next, the navy went in search of Isla.

“Isla reported late last night they were taking on water in the engine compartment and had an electrical fire. They have had a container vessel, Bosun, standing by for assistance since early this morning. All is under control and, although they originally took the decision to sail back to port, Smit Madura is now on station with the yacht to possibly tow them back to port,” Matthews reported.

There were a further seven vessels that were also in trouble.

* The NSRI’s Station 3 was on Monday en route to tow Black Cat back to shore. She had no steerage because of a broken rudder. The ship arrived back in Cape Town early on Monday night.

* Indaba was on its way back to port with an injured crew member.

* Peekay was safely in harbour at Saldanha Bay’s Yachtport.

* DoDo, Avocet and Avanti were all shorebound.

* Tranquillo was able to receive calls only, not send messages. The crew and vessel were believed well.

Matthews said Bille’s sponsor had commissioned a vessel to tow it back to port and heaped praise on the navy, the NSRI and the Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre.

Cape Argus