The sister of one of four British yachtsmen who went missing when a yacht capsized in the mid-Atlantic Ocean has said she is convinced her brother is still alive and appealed for the American authorities to relaunch the search and rescue mission to find them.

The plea by the yachtsmen's families for the search for the crew of the Cheeki Rafiki to be resumed has been backed by an MP as well as prominent figures in the sailing world.

The 40ft Beneteau performance racer/cruiser yacht, ran into difficulties some 620 miles east of Cape Cod in Massachusetts on Thursday while returning to the UK from a regatta in Antigua.

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Contact with the ship's experienced captain Andrew Bridge, 22, and crew members James Male, 23, Steve Warren, 52, and Paul Goslin, 56, was lost in the early hours of Friday while they diverted to the Azores.

US and Canadian aircraft assisted by three merchant vessels looked for them throughout Friday and Saturday but called off the search yesterday at 5am local time amid treacherous weather.

Some 4,000 square miles 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.

On Saturday, a cargo vessel which was helping with the search spotted and photographed an overturned hull which matched the description of the Cheeki Rafiki but reported no signs of people on board or a life raft.

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Kay Coombes, the sister of Mr Warren (above), said that she and their mother, Margaret Warren, were convinced that he was still alive.

She said: ''It's an utter nightmare, we are grateful for the US and Canadian coast guards for what they have done so far but it's stopped too soon after two days, it's not long enough, we believe they are still alive.

''They are four strong-minded, physically strong sailors, they knew they were in difficulties and had every opportunity to get into the life raft which would have had provisions for several days. But if no one is looking for them, they won't be found.''

Mrs Coombes, 46, said she did not believe the US Coastguard had any intention of resuming the search even when weather conditions improved.

She said: ''Everyone is just trying to put pressure on the US Coastguard using every channel possible. They said they would only continue the search when any debris was found but if no one is looking how can they find it, there are only passing ships in a very big ocean.''

Mrs Coombes said her brother, who works as a project manager for an electrical company in Wincanton, Somerset, was an experienced sailor who was on a working holiday aboard the yacht.

She said: ''He has always been around on the water, he had several sailing holidays in the Mediterranean and three years ago he sailed from the Azores to Southampton when he had a real taste of what it's like to sail on the oceans.''

She added that their mother was very upset and added: ''It's very, very difficult, especially being so far away.''

Mr Bridge's aunt, Georgina Bridge, said the family, including his parents David and Mary and brother William, 19, were devastated by his disappearance and at the search being called off.

She said: ''Obviously we are all devastated by what is happening, we just want the search to resume.

''We have great appreciation for the efforts the US Coastguard and our Foreign Office have made but obviously we believe there is hope and there is a possibility of them being found alive.

''The hull has not been examined so that is a possibility, there is a possibility they may have been able to launch a life raft, we just do not know.

''Obviously the conditions are difficult, we appreciate every effort is being made but we were surprised the search was called off so early. We are in contact with the Foreign Office and they have been helpful.''

She said that Mr Bridge's parents were going through an ''incredibly difficult time'' but had some hope the search would continue.

She said: ''At one point they (US Coastguard) said they had suspended the search but there have been various people who have been commenting from different positions who have all been saying the same thing, that they are surprised the search was called off so early, people have been found a lot longer after an event like this, everyone says there needs to be more time given.''

Ms Bridge added her nephew was a professional sailor who was trained to survive such a situation.

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She said: ''Andrew is a sailor as a career, he began sailing at a young age, at the age of eight or nine on a local pond, it has been his passion, he has taken part in some incredibly challenging events including the Fastnet, the Arc Transatlantic Race and the Round Britain, he is very qualified and a respected sailor and he is fully qualified in survival techniques and that is why we are still holding out hope.''

Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, said that she had been told by the Foreign Office that it was ''investigating every avenue it can do'' to try to encourage the US Coastguard to act for longer.

She said: ''They (the families) are desperately keen that the search be resumed, that although conditions are not good they're better than they were when the search started.

''So they're keen to emphasise the life raft could well have been deployed, that the men are trained to survive this sort of eventuality and so really they're beseeching the US Coastguard to carry on with that search and just give them a bit more of a chance.''

Daily Echo: James pictured with his family before the voyage

Mr Male's father, Graham Male, said there was evidence that the crew had acted in a reasoned manner and they would have had the opportunity to evacuate the yacht using its life raft.

He told ITV Meridian: ''It would appear the crew had plenty of time, they were taking in water, they were in contact with the company in Southampton, there was no panic.

''The crew had plenty of time to prepare the life raft and from new evidence we have, there were two personal beacons on board, one of which was James', 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.''

He said that he had been told by the US Coastguard that the reason for calling off the search was not because of bad weather but due to resources.

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He added: ''We just can't believe the coastguard have called off the search so soon.We are trying to do things to plea to the Government to put pressure on the US Coastguard and the Canadian to reinstate the search particularly now we have much better weather than we had.''

The crew had joked on social media about their lengthening beards and the food they were eating on their journey back to Southampton.

A blog posted to Facebook on Tuesday, one of their last, read: ''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''.

Stormforce director Doug Innes said that the yacht had first started taking on water on Thursday but the skipper was in contact and the crew were keeping the situation stable.

''Although the search efforts co-ordinated by Boston were exceptional we are devastated that the search has now been called off so soon,'' Mr Innes said.

''Our thoughts are with the four yachtsmen and their families and we hope and pray for them all.''

Sailing experts questioned why no one on the Greek-registered 1,000ft container ship MAERSK KURE had tried to get down to the yacht when it spotted the Cheeki Rafiki's hull, which appeared to be missing its keel.

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Andrew Pindar, who runs the GAC Pindar racing team, said that crew members could still have been trapped inside the Cheeki Rafiki's hull at that point.

And he cited the example of Tony Bullimore, who survived on a pocket of air under his capsized yacht in the Southern Ocean for five days before being rescued in 1997.

But Petty Officer Rob Simpson, of the US Coastguard, claimed that the ship ''lacked the manoeuvrability, capacity and ability to help''.

''It has a fairly limited possibility of picking anything up - it is not designed for search and rescue capabilities or anything like that or trained to do anything like that,'' he said.

Asked if others could have attended the scene where the hull was found, PO Simpson said: ''It is not possible to take a helicopter that far off shore - the search area is very far out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The grand scale of this is immense.

''Aircraft take four or five hours to get there and vessels can take over a week. This particular ship just happened to be in the area, they were not tasked specifically for this.''

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.''

Cressida Goslin, whose husband Paul was among the crew, highlighted a petition which has gathered almost 20,000 signatures in less than 24 hours urging a continuation of the search.

She said: ''Our major concern is we feel this search has been called off too early. The initial search was hindered by the weather conditions, we just feel they could have given more time to the search and they could still be in the life raft.

''The evidence suggests because they had time on board, they knew there was a water leak, they had time to prepare to put a life raft in the water... it was a life raft suitable for 12 people and there were only four people in there. They would have had the provisions that were in the life raft but they would have had time to take more provisions.

''Last night I had a long conversation with the Foreign Office... the upshot was they said the Coastguard did not feel they could do anything else. We feel if this isn't to do with resources and there are resources available, why can't they just continue for another couple of days.

''There is an online petition now, at the moment there are 20,000 names signed and we only did it last night. We are hoping that will appeal to William Hague to try and intervene his equivalent number in America.

''We don't have any criticism of the US Coastguard, they have been fantastic, we just feel the search has been stopped too early.

''We don't want to leave any stone unturned, it is a very short window of opportunity - we are realistic. If we had another two or three days and they don't find anything or they find bodies, or whatever happened, I think everyone would just feel they have some closure.

Mr Bridge's mother, Mary Bridge, said: ''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.''

Nicola Evans, a British sign language interpreter from Belvedere, London, started the online petition calling for the search to resume.

The 38-year-old said she was moved to take action having sailed with Mr Bridge last summer on Cheeki Rafiki.

She said: ''I started the petition because I spent all last summer on Cheeki Rafiki with Andrew Bridge, he's a very experienced sailor and I want them to have the best possible chance.

''I came really close with Andy, I suffered horrendous sea sickness and he looked after me, he has a heart of gold, he's an amazing guy and deserves every chance to be found.''

She added: ''As a relatively novice sailor myself I had absolutely no concerns over safety with Andy, I knew he would be able to deal with every situation.''

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Amongst those who have signed the petition, which by 3pm today had reached more than 20,000 signatures, is Claire Goslin, the daughter of missing Paul Goslin (above). She wrote: ''One of the sailors is my dad and we cannot give up! He is my world and we need to start this search again!!!''