The US Coast Guard has rejected tearful pleas from the families of four sailors missing in the mid-Atlantic to resume the search operation, as a photograph emerged of what is thought to be their capsized yacht just feet away from a passing cargo ship.
The Cheeki Rafiki, a 39ft racing yacht, was returning to the UK from Antigua when it began to take on water on Thursday. The crew managed to set off two distress signals and their families believe the experienced sailors would have been able to get into a life raft.
US and Canadian aircraft, assisted by three merchant vessels, looked for the men throughout Friday and Saturday, but called off the search on Sunday at 5am local time, amid stormy weather, despite suggestions that the men could still be alive in a life raft or trapped inside the boat’s upturned hull.
Some 4,000 square miles of the sea were scanned for the "very well-equipped" vessel's two personal location GPS beacons, until no more transmissions were received from the small devices which have a short battery life.
A Foreign Office spokesman declined to comment when asked if it had asked the US Coast Guard to start looking for the sailors again.
“The US Coast Guard has given us assurances that they have conducted a fully exhaustive search,” he said.
The Foreign Office added that the UK Coastguard “supports” its American counterpart’s decision to suspend the search.
The upturned hull of what is thought to be the Cheeki Rafiki was photographed by a container ship, the Maersk Kure, which passed by within a few feet. The 1,000ft cargo vessel diverted to the area where the yacht was believed to be at the request of the US Coast Guard, but did not attempt to check whether anyone was still trapped in the hull.
An official with Athens-based shipping company Costamare, which runs the Maersk Kure, said that the ship would not have been able to use one of its lifeboats to check the yacht.
The missing men, Paul Goslin, 56, Steve Warren, 52, both from Somerset, James Male, 23, from Southampton, and Andrew Bridge, 21, from Farnham, Surrey, were all described as experienced sailors.
Mary Bridge, the mother of 21-year-old Mr Bridge, told BBC News: "I'm a bit numb actually. We wanted him back.
"We know they've worked hard for two days but my husband and I and my other son and the other families all wish them to resume the search for these four men."
Her husband, David, added: "The weather has improved so they should restart their search. We all think they're in the life raft. One personal beacon was set off, and when that died they set another personal beacon off, which would suggest they were somewhere safe enough to be able to do so."
Cressida Goslin, whose husband Paul was among the crew, highlighted a petition which has gathered over 23,000 signatures in less than 24 hours urging a continuation of the search.
Claire Goslin, Mr Goslin's daughter, was amongst those who have signed the petition.
"One of the sailors is my dad and we cannot give up! He is my world and we need to start this search again!!!" she wrote.
Mr Male's father, Graham Male, mirrored Mr and Mrs Bridge's comments during an interview with ITV Meridian, and also said there was evidence that the crew had acted in a reasoned manner.
"When they were set off they were set off in a timed position, they reserved their resources, they waited until the first beacon had run out before they actually set the second beacon - that's rational-thinking people.
"We know they are very qualified and they have certainly had a lot of training. These aren't your average weekend sailors, they are sailors that are professional, we know they would have had every piece of equipment and they would have every chance to get on that life raft," said Mr Male, adding he was urging the Government to put further pressure on the US Coastguard.
Contact was lost with the yacht when it diverted to the Azores
Kay Coombes, the sister of Mr Warren who works as a project manager for an electrical company in Wncanton, Somerset, said that she and their mother, Margaret Warren, were convinced that he was still alive.
She added that their mother was very upset and added: "It's very, very difficult, especially being so far away."
On Tuesday, the team shared one of their last blog posts on Facebook, reading: "And yesterday we did it ... we turned east for home, completing our first 1,000 miles [which] was celebrated with a release of a cherished beach ball with a note inside, I hope it doesn't get home before us!
"We are already thinking of home and the ones we love and miss, you know who you are!"
Mr Bridge, who is from Farnham in Surrey, was being paid by Southampton-based yacht training and charter company Stormforce Coaching for his role as captain, a spokeswoman for the firm said.
He had taken part in Antigua Week together with Mr Goslin, from West Camel, Somerset, Mr Warren, from Bridgwater, also in Somerset, and Mr Male, from Southampton, all described as "very experienced offshore yachtsmen".
Doug Innes, director of Southampton-based Stormforce Coaching, which manages the yacht, said the search operation had been “exceptional”.
“We are devastated that search has been called off so soon after the abandonment to a life raft," he added.
Andrew Pindar, who runs the GAC Pindar sailing team, pointed to the successful rescue of Tony Bullimore, a sailor who capsized in the Indian Ocean in the 1990s and was trapped for several days.
“I don’t know what has happened in this particular case and wouldn’t want to speculate, but if nobody has gone to look inside there is a clear worry that survivors could have still been trapped there,” he said.
“It is horrific to think that it [the container ship] could have sailed on with the possibility that someone was still inside.”
The US Coast Guard said it had “suspended its active search pending further developments”.
“We are extremely disappointed that we were not able to locate the sailors during the course of this extensive search.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with their families during this difficult time,” said Captain Anthony Popiel, 1st Coast Guard District Chief of Response.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "We are aware of a missing yacht off the East Coast of the USA with four British nationals on board.
"We are in continual contact with the US Coastguard and are providing consular assistance to the families."