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By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON, May 21 (Reuters) - Planes and ships from the United States, Canada, and Britain have turned up no fresh signs of four British sailors missing in the Atlantic, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Wednesday, adding search efforts would continue.
The crew members on board the yacht Cheeki Rafiki went missing on Friday as they were returning to Britain from a sailing event in Antigua in the Caribbean and reported that the vessel was taking on water, forcing them to change course for the Azores.
“Unfortunately we have had no sightings of a life raft, persons in the water, a sailboat, or debris,” U.S. Coast Guard Captain Anthony Popeil, who is leading the search, told reporters at a press conference in Boston.
“No decisions have been made regarding suspension of this search. Our focus is on continuing search planning, and I can confirm now that we are making plans to have search assets on scene tomorrow,” he said.
The U.S. Coast Guard, supported by U.S. and Canadian air forces, had mounted a search about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but called it off on Sunday due to treacherous conditions, saying there was little chance of finding them.
But U.S. authorities resumed the hunt on Tuesday after a public appeal backed by UK politicians and British billionaire Richard Branson not to give up on finding the yachtsmen just yet. Popeil said the decision to resume the search was made “at the request of the British government” and that he had been in regular contact with the families of the missing men.
Searchers covered some 9,000 square miles (23,300 square km) of ocean since resuming the effort Tuesday morning, Popeil said. He said U.S. British, and Canadian aircraft had been scanning for signs of the sailors, and that a Coast Guard cutter and a Navy warship were en route to the area to help.
“This is a large scale international search, and we are saturating a very large, very remote area of the Atlantic ocean,” he said.
Relatives of the missing men had set up a petition to urge U.S. authorities to resume their search after the suspension, saying the men, all experienced sailors, could have escaped from the 40-foot (12-meter) yacht on a life raft.
Within 36 hours the petition had attracted over 200,000 signatures and the support of British politicians and entrepreneur Branson, who tweeted “urge for longer search for missing Cheeki Rafiki yacht”.
The fate of the four - named as captain Andrew Bridge, 21, Steve Warren, 52, Paul Goslin, 56, and James Male, 23 - has dominated television and newspaper headlines in Britain with their relatives publicly appealing for more time to be devoted to the search.
Popeil has said the estimated survival time after a distress alert in extreme conditions at sea was about 20 hours. He said that at about noon on Saturday, crew from the cargo ship MV Maersk Kure had located an overturned hull that matched the description of the Cheeki Rafiki but could not find any sign of the sailors. (Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Eric Walsh)