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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 January 2007, 16:39 GMT
Crew rescued from stricken ship
Rescue helicopter and MSC Napoli lifeboat
One helicopter took 45 minutes to rescue 13 crewmembers

Twenty-six crew have been rescued from a damaged British container ship in the English Channel 50 miles (80km) off the Lizard in Cornwall.

The crew of the MSC Napoli abandoned ship after it got into difficulties. No-one suffered any major injuries.

The 62,000-tonne vessel took in water through a hole in its side as it made its way through the Channel.

Two helicopters from RNAS Culdrose airlifted all the crew in the French co-ordinated rescue.

Falmouth Coastguard received a distress call from the Napoli at about 1030 GMT after a 1m by 0.5m (3ft by 1ft 6in) hole in its starboard side started letting in water.

The crew of 275m (900ft) long ship, owned by Mediterranean Shipping Company, then abandoned ship for a lifeboat.

Rescued Napoli crew - Picture: PA
The rescued crewmembers were taken back to RNAS Culdrose
Despite storm force winds, the Royal Navy aircraft, from 771 Search and Rescue Squadron, were able to hover above the crew's lifeboat and perform the rescue in what were described by the rescuers as "pretty horrific" conditions.

Weather on scene was south-westerly severe gale force nine (more than 50mph), with 8m to 9m (26ft to 30ft) swells.

The first Culdrose helicopter took about 45 minutes to airlift 13 of the crew before heading back to Cornwall.

The second aircraft brought back the remainder.

One pilot, Capt Damian May, said his aircraft was nearly having to surf the waves.

He said: "Once we come alongside the lifeboat, the waves and the swell were up to 50ft, which effectively meant we were going up and down 50ft in the dips of the swell and the top of the waves while we were trying to maintain station on the lifeboat."

'Dangerous' cargo

The mixed nationality crew includes two young British cadets, as well as crew members from Bulgaria, Ukraine, Turkey, India and the Philippines.

The Napoli is carrying about 2,400 containers, although its capacity is more than 4,400.

Map showing rescue site
The European Maritime and Safety Agency said the vessel was listed as carrying "dangerous cargo", but coastguards said a small proportion of the containers were believed to contain insecticides and pesticides.

The ship is now in a stable position 45 miles (72km) south east of the Lizard and a salvage contract has been agreed.

Robin Middleton, leading the coastguard salvage response unit, said: "The emergency towing vessel Anglian Princess and a French tug are on scene.

"A French salvage team is being transferred onto the Napoli by helicopter and will assess the stability and integrity of the vessel to decide if the vessel can be towed.

MSC Napoli - Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Coastguards hope to tow the Napoli to port
"The current plan is to tow the vessel to a port and discharge the cargo ashore."

Although the ship was holed in its starboard side, it is listing to port. Falmouth coastguards said that may mean she will not sink.

As well as the hole on the vessel's side, the ship also suffered a flooded engine.

All vessels in the area are being warned that they should avoid her.

The 16-year-old vessel is registered to London, and was last inspected by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in May 2005 when officials said it met safety standards.

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