By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities resumed a hunt on Tuesday for four British yachtsmen missing in the Atlantic Ocean after a public appeal backed by MPs and billionaire Richard Branson not to give up on finding them just yet.
The sailors on board the yacht Cheeki Rafiki went missing on Friday as they were returning to Britain from a sailing event in Antigua in the Caribbean and reported that the vessel was taking on water, forcing them to change course to head to the Azores.
The U.S. Coast Guard, supported by U.S. and Canadian air forces, mounted a search about 1,000 miles off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but called it off on Sunday due to treacherous conditions, saying there was little chance of finding them.
But relatives of the missing men set up a petition to urge U.S. authorities to resume their search, saying the men, all experienced sailors, could have escaped from the 40-foot (12 metres) yacht on a life raft.
Within 36 hours the petition had attracted over 200,000 signatures and the support of British politicians and entrepreneur Branson, who tweeted "urge for longer search for missing Cheeki Rafiki yacht".
U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ross Rudell said the search restarted early Tuesday for the men, who have been named as captain Andrew Bridge, 21, Steve Warren, 52, Paul Goslin, 56, and James Male, 23, all from southern England.
"All I can tell you is that we have resumed the search," Rudell told Reuters, without giving a reason for the decision or providing any details on the resources involved.
Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the decision. The fate of the four sailors has dominated television and newspaper headlines in Britain with their relatives publicly appealing to devote more time to the search.
"My thanks to the US Coastguard, which has resumed its search for our missing yachtsmen," Cameron tweeted.
On Sunday U.S. Coast Guard Captain Anthony Popiel said it had been a difficult decision to suspend the search but the estimated survival time after a distress alert in extreme conditions at sea was about 20 hours and the crew had searched for 53 hours.
He said that at about noon on Saturday, the crew from the 1,000-foot motor vessel Maersk Kure located an overturned hull that matched the description of the Cheeki Rafiki but could not find any sign of the sailors.
But the families refused to give up and were relieved to hear the search had resumed. "There is still hope. It is a shame that it has taken this long to change their minds to get back out there," Warren's sister Kay Coombes told the BBC.
(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in London and Richard Valdmanis in New York, Editing by Mark Heinrich)