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Canada launches rescue as winds hit trans-Atlantic sailing race

FILE PHOTO: A Royal Canadian Air Force CC-130 Hercules aircraft from 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron, 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia, does a fly-past of the drop zone for search and rescue training in Gascoyne Inlet, Nunavut, Canada April 21, 2012. Cpl Jax Kennedy/RCAF/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian military launched a rescue mission on Friday to reach several sailing vessels in distress in the mid-Atlantic after high seas and hurricane-strength winds disrupted a race from Britain to the United States.

The defense ministry said it was “responding to distress calls from multiple sailing vessels,” coordinating efforts with marine rescue centers from the United States, Portugal and Britain.

A Canadian frigate and two coastguard ships, as well as two civilian tankers, were en route in response to calls from three yachts damaged by the storm, ministry spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said by e-mail.

“At least one vessel is dismasted, with others having rigging and or hull damage,” he said. The Canadian ships should arrive in 24 to 72 hours. Canada has also sent two long-range search-and-rescue aircraft.

The vessels, carrying one or two sailors each, were sailing from Plymouth, England to Newport, Rhode Island as part of the Royal Western Yacht Club’s single-handed and two-handed transatlantic race.

The three boats are single-hulled vessels under 50 feet in length and the crews are experienced, Le Bouthillier said. None of the sailors in trouble is Canadian.

The military said conditions in the mid-Atlantic remained difficult, with 10-15 meter (32-49 feet) seas and 50-70 knot (58-81 mph) winds. Sustained winds of 64 knots or greater are considered hurricane force.

Twenty-one vessels from about a dozen countries began the race, departing Plymouth on May 29, according to the yacht club’s website. The races are open to single and multi-hulled vessels between 27 and 60 feet in length.

Reporting by Andrea Hopkins and David Ljunggren; Editing by Alden Bentley and James Dalgleish