“WE BELIEVE James and his crewmates are still alive.”

That is the message from the families of four missing yachtsmen who are putting pressure on the Government to restart the search for the Cheeki Rafiki and her crew.

A huge search operation covering 4,000 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean was launched by the US Coastguard, but it was called off on Sunday.

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Now a petition calling for the search to be resumed has 138,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the search to be resumed.

And sailing legends Ben Fogle and Sir Richard Branson have added their voices to the calls.

Sir Richard, who was himself rescued from a capsised yacht during a world record-attempt in 1985, tweeted: "Urge for longer search for missing Cheeki Rafiki yacht. All our thoughts with the crew & their loved ones."

Meanwhile presenter Ben Fogle, who has rowed across the Atlantic with Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell, also tweeted his support.

He said: "Why has the search for the missing British sailors in the Atlantic been called off so soon? This is ridiculous. Never give up."

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The men – 23-year-old James Male from Romsey, 21-year-old Andrew Bridge from Surrey, 52-year-old Steve Warren and 56-year-old Paul Goslin, both from Somerset – were on their way back to Southampton from a sailing event in the Caribbean.

Today their families are calling on Foreign Secretary William Hague to intervene and restart the search.

Mr Male’s father, Graham, told the Daily Echo: “Our main goal has to be to get the search reinstated.

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Missing James and his family

“The longer it takes, the harder it will become to find them.”

Mr Male’s family have spoken to Romsey and Southampton North MP Caroline Nokes, who is acting as an intermediary with Conservative colleague Mr Hague.

They want Mr Hague to put pressure on the US Government to restart the search.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the local MP for one of the missing men, has appealed to the US Coast Guard not to give up and entrepreneur and adventurer Sir Richard Branson has called on vessels near the area to keep a lookout.

Mr Hunt, MP for South West Surrey, the constituency in which Mmissing Andrew Bridge lives, tweeted his support for the search to restart.

He wrote: ''Desperate 4 families of missing yachtsman,one from Farnham. I know US Coastguard has done masses but pls don't stop looking.2 soon 2 give up''.

An online petition asking the Coastguard to start the search again had passed 180,000 signatures on the change.org website this morning.

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Family friend on James Natasha Phillips has also designed a logo to help keep support building.

Ms Nokes said: “What we are conscious of is that these are highly trained yachtsmen with a top-ofthe- range life raft, and what the families are keen to emphasize is that these aren’t weekend sailors and will have lots of training.

“They want additional searching when visibility has improved and these men given every chance of survival.

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“I have been in direct contact with the Foreign Office all of Sunday and again yesterday and I think it is absolutely imperative that we keep up the pressure with the Foreign Office on the US Coastguard.

“We want to keep that pressure up and make sure that every channel is explored and used to try and get the search resumed.”

Having left Antigua on May 4, the Cheeki Rafiki first started taking on water on Thursday and lost contact with the US Coastguard in the early hours of the following morning.

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A massive search operation was then launched, with US and Canadian vessels and aircraft covering a 4,000 square mile stretch of the Atlantic over the course of two days. But on Sunday, to the dismay of relatives and despite a container ship spotting what is thought to be the Cheeki Rafiki’s upturned hull, the search was called off.

Explaining the reason to call of the search, Captain Anthony Popiel said factors including weather conditions, emergency equipment and the expected condition of the people being searched for were all taken into account.

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He added: “Based on the extreme conditions at sea, but assuming b e s t - c a s e emergency equipment, the estimated survival time past the time of distress was approximately 20 hours.

“Crews searched for 53 hours.”

But the families say they think the search was stopped too early, and they are taking their fight to restart it to the top of Government.

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Heather McIlroy, head teacher at Mr Male’s former school, The Mountbatten School in Romsey, described him as a “very popular student who loved the outdoor life and played an active part in the wider life of the school.”

She added: “James’s positivity and commitment served as a fine example to other students. We remain hopeful for a positive outcome.”

A spokesman for the Foreign Office 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.”

When asked if the department believed if the US search had been comprehensive enough, she added: “Not for us to make an assessment from here, but we’ve been in continual contact with the US Coastguard and our coastguard in the UK.

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“The US Coastguard has given us assurances that they have conducted a fully exhaustive search.”

Andrew Pindar, who runs the GAC Pindar racing team, said that crew members could still have been trapped inside the Cheeki Rafiki’s hull when it was spotted by the Greek container ship Maersk Kure.

He cited the example of T o n y Bullimore, who survived on a pocket of air under his capsized yacht in the Southern Ocean for five days before being rescued in 1997.

Mr Bridge was being paid by Southamptonbased 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 Male, Mr Goslin and Mr Warren, all described as “very experienced offshore yachtsmen”.

The Daily Echo has made repeated attempts to contact the US Coastguard but they have not responded.

Meanwhile the families of the four men say they have not given up hope.

James Male’s uncle, Darren Williams, from Totton, said: “At the moment the consensus is that the only way to start the search again is to put pressure on the British Government to put pressure on the US Government.

“We’re positive they are still out there on a life raft and we can’t praise the US Coastguard enough for what they have done, but we just feel the search was called off too early.”

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Missing Steve Warren

Mr Warren’s sister, Kay Coombes, said: “It’s an utter nightmare. We are grateful for the US and Canadian coastguards 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 strongminded, 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.”

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Missing Andrew Bridge

And Paul Goslin’s wife Cressida Goslin, said: “Our major concern is we feel this search has been called off too early. 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.

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Missing Paul Gosling

“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.”