Search for Suffolk sailors called off

RELATIVES are praying that a Suffolk solicitor and his son who vanished while yachting amid atrocious conditions are still alive - even though US coastguards called off their search late last night.

By John Howard

RELATIVES are praying that a Suffolk solicitor and his son who vanished while yachting amid atrocious conditions are still alive - even though US coastguards called off their search late last night.

The three Britons went missing in high seas and a rescue beacon and wreckage, thought to belong to their yacht, have been recovered.

Jacek Bielecki, 56, his son Jack, 19, and family friend Richard White, 34, have not been heard from since noon on Thursday, when Mr Bielecki called his stepdaughter in America to say their 41ft yacht, Free Spirit, was in trouble and they needed to be rescued immediately.

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They disappeared amid atrocious conditions, with the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto causing winds of up to 115mph and 30ft seas.

The US coastguard has now revealed that an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) thought to belong to the Free Spirit was recovered by rescuers on Thursday some time after Mr Bielecki's distress call.

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A massive rescue operation involving American and Canadian coastguards and the Canadian Air Force using jets, helicopters and boats combed 15,000 square miles of ocean but found no sign of life.

And coastguards have now called off their search for Mr Bielecki, his son, Mr White, and 21-year-old American Molly Finn, Jack's girlfriend.

“Suspending a search is one of the hardest decisions,” said Rear Admiral David Pekoske, who led the search operation, last night.

“I understand how difficult it is for family and friends to move forward when a search is suspended without the hoped for outcome.

“I can assure you that the coastguard worked around the clock trying to locate the Free Spirit or its crew.”

Mr Bielecki moved from Orford, near Woodbridge, to Newport, Rhode Island, in October and the yacht was making its way from Newport to Europe after setting sail a week ago.

Coastguards said the yacht's last distress call was made 200 nautical miles south of Halifax, Nova Scotia and 290 nautical miles east of Chatham, Massachusetts.

But last night their desperate family were still clinging to hope that the foursome could still be alive.

In a statement released to the EADT, the families urged the American authorities to continue with the search.

They said: “We feel that there is a still a chance of successful rescue of the Free Spirit's crew.

“The families continue to remain positive that their loved ones will be found.

“There has still been no evidence to suggest that the vessel has been lost and because of this fact, they continue to urge and appeal to the US and Canadian authorities to continue to do as much as they can and reconsider the suspension of the rescue operation.

“The last known position of the Free Spirit has been thoroughly searched, however due to the severe weather conditions of Hurricane Alberta it would be unlikely that the Free Spirit would have remained in this area.

“The families would like to appeal to any vessels in this surrounding area to be on the look out for any information or evidence that could aid the successful rescue of the crew and report this immediately to the authorities.”

The Bielecki family lived until last year in Orford where they were all members of the village's sailing club. Last year Mr Bielecki sold the family home for an estimated £1.2million and moved to start a new life in Rhode Island, America. His wife, Tanya, moved to a new house in another Suffolk village.

Polly Bielecka, 26, and her sisters Amber, 22, and 20-year-old Jet and their step-sister Ailsa were yesterday comforting their mother at her home, anxiously waiting for news.

Polly said: “We are not in any way critical of the US coastguards - they have made a tremendous effort. “Their response has been utterly exceptional, they have done a marvellous job and we are very grateful to them.

“But we would urge them not to give up. There has been no evidence or any other indicators that would lead us to the conclusion that the crew are not still alive. A life raft or the vessel may still be afloat with survivors on board.

“Our father and the crew are all experienced yachtsmen who are aware of all the risks and would have acted according to the conditions.”

Mr Bielecki and his son, who celebrated his 19th birthday on Monday, had set out with Jack's girlfriend American Molly Finn, 21 and Suffolk boat-builder Richard White, 34, on the Atlantic crossing that was expected to take three weeks.

Polly added: “My father had made trans-Atlantic crossings in similar boats before and is a very experienced sailor.

“They bought the boat in November and have spent the last nine months making it ready for the circumnavigation and were heading first for the Med.

“The yacht had all the proper life-saving equipment including a six-man life raft and everyone on board had a harness and life-jacket.”

Mr Bielecki's brother Mark and sister-in-law Ann, of Wivenhoe in Essex, said they were hoping for good news.

Mr Bielecki's brother added: “We're still hanging on to hope. Jacek is extremely determined and resourceful.

“He is quite capable of dealing with extreme situations so we have every hope that somewhere along the line, he may well have dealt with the problem and they will all be found.

“Nothing has really been found in the way of debris so far. No wreckage, no life raft or anything, which makes me hopeful. All they have found is some milk bottles.”

Thanks to a personal plea from the family and the intervention of North Essex Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, the Americans agreed to extend the search for an extra 24 hours. The operation was the biggest the coastguards have launched in the last 15 years.

As fears were raised that the search had been called off too early, MP Mr Jenkin stepped in at the weekend. The Tory MP was contacted by a Wivenhoe town councillor asking for his help in extending the search time.

Mr Jenkin said last night that he spoke to the Foreign Office and No 10 Downing Street late on Saturday.

“I don't know if it is an unusual situation (extending the search) but I think it is a courtesy when one Government asks another one in these circumstances,” Mr Jenkin said.

He added that it would be a difficult decision at any time to call off such a search and admitted that the situation was “very bleak”.

“It is a terrible blow and I do feel very sorry for the family. These were all experienced yachtsmen and they would have understood these are the risks but it is deeply distressing for the family.”

A spokesman for the Law Society confirmed that Jacek Maciej Bielecki was struck off by the Solicitor Disciplinary Tribunal on March 6, 2001 following an investigation by the Law Society.

Mr Bielecki was an employee of Hughes Hooker law firm, originally based in London EC7 and later in Manningtree, Essex.

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