TWO women who spent 16 hours clinging to the upturned hull of their boat in stormy Atlantic waters have been rescued by the British crew of a tall ship.
Sarah Kessans and Emily Kohl were rowing across the Atlantic when their boat, American Fire, capsized after being hit by a 35ft-high wave on Sunday. They escaped as their cabin filled with water and activated a beacon alerting the coastguard, but their liferaft floated away from them in the storm.
The 49-strong crew of largely novice sailors on the Stavros S Niarchos, from Plymouth, diverted 140 miles off course to pick up the two American women, after being alerted by the US coastguard that they were the nearest vessel to the stranded rowers.
The two women were rescued about 1,300 miles east of Puerto Rico. The tall ship's sailors dropped their lifeboat into the sea and dragged the women towards their ship in stormy conditions.
Captain Darren Naggs, the master of the 180ft tall ship, said: "All the crew worked very hard throughout the night to reset the sails, as we had to change course for the rescue area.
"When we arrived, Emily and Sarah, cold and tired, were very relieved to see us. We gave them blankets, a cup of tea and a big breakfast, before putting them into warm beds."
Ms Kessans, 22, and Ms Kohl, 23, had been at sea for 47 days and were halfway through rowing the 2,913 miles from the Canary Islands to Antigua in the West Indies.
The pair, one of only four all-female teams competing in the Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race 2005, had rowed together at Purdue University in Indiana but had little ocean experience.
Petty Officer Kip Wadlow, of the US coastguard, said: "They were very lucky to be able to stay with their vessel."
Bill Butler, the women's shore coach, criticised the organiser, Woodvale Events, for mismanaging the race. He said it would have been better to have started the race in March rather than December, as storms at this time are a "predictable phenomenon".
He also said the light-weight open vessels approved by the company for racing "cannot, in the wildest stretch of the imagination, be considered fit for oceanic service".
The pair, though "desperately disappointed" not to have completed their voyage, were said to be looking forward to helping sail the Stavros S Niarchos round the Caribbean. They are expected to reach Barbados on Sunday. The square-rigged vessel, which is owned by the Tall Ships Youth Trust, had been en route to Barbados from the Canaries with 30 people on board who were learning to sail.
A spokeswoman for the charity said: "The girls were absolutely thrilled when the ship arrived and will no doubt be hailing the crew as their heroes. They were just very grateful to them. Everybody on board was involved in the rescue because, when sailing a tall ship, it's all hands on deck to do anything, particularly to turn the ship around.
"To do that is a big team decision and they didn't think twice about it. They had a bit of trouble getting them on board, so it was a dramatic rescue."
The Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race begins at La Gomera in the Canaries and ends about 60 days later in Antigua. American Fire was the second boat that the US coastguard has had to assist. Another capsized on 8 January and suffered damage. So far, only one boat has finished - the rest are still at sea.