SOUTHAMPTON cruise ship, Aurora answered a midnight Mayday from a yacht in distress and altered course to make a mercy dash off the Dorset coast.

In gale force conditions, Aurora, pictured, went to the aid of the 51ft yacht Grandee which had put out an emergency message calling for help after a member of the crew had been lost overboard in rough seas.

The yacht had been taking part in the De Guingand race organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Yacht Club starting from Cowes to Cherbourg.

Aurora alerted the coastguard early on Saturday morning and headed for the yacht.

By the time the P&O Cruises' vessel arrived on the scene, the man had been recovered by the yacht's crew after he had been in the sea for ten minutes.

The man, who has not been named, went to hospital in Weymouth and was later discharged.

Dave Gregory from Portland coastguard said: "The man was very lucky. It is very difficult to spot somebody who has fallen overboard in the middle of the night. He had a light on his lifejacket which was very good."

The Southampton-based Aurora was asked by the Portland coastguard to remain at the scene and act as a radio relay station between the shore and the yacht.

Captain Ian Walters, master of Aurora, said: "Conditions were horrid so we stayed alongside the yacht while a helicopter was scrambled.

"When the aircraft arrived Aurora was positioned to provide shelter from the 35 knot wind so the crew member could be lifted into the helicopter and taken to hospital."

Aurora then shadowed Grandee as it made its way towards Poole where it was then picked by the local lifeboat which took it to the safety of the harbour.

Aurora then continued to her home port of Southampton where she left later in the day for a short voyage to Amsterdam and Guernsey.

In a separate incident another yacht, Jeu De Spirite, suffered damage and one crew member sustained a head injury. She headed for Weymouth. Portland coastguard said that a number of other yachts had to retire from the De Guingand race .

It is a practice run by about 90 yachts for the Fastnet race which takes place later this year.

Three crew members from three separate yachts suffered minor rib and ligament injuries. The boats headed into Poole harbour. Another yacht was dismasted off the The Needles and was towed into Poole by the Swanage lifeboat.