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Yacht version of the Mary Celeste. T he table was set. Laptop screens flickered in the cabin and mobile phones and sunglasses were on the chart table in front of the empty chairs. But there was no crew.

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yacht version of the mary celeste

Yacht version of the Mary Celeste

The table was set. Laptop screens flickered in the cabin and mobile phones and sunglasses were on the chart table in front of the empty chairs. But there was no crew.

“It’s almost like they just stepped off the boat,” said Trevor Wilson, pilot of the rescue helicopter sent to investigate after the catamaran was spotted drifting off the Queensland coast.

The discovery of the Kaz 11 without her three-man crew has mystified Australian rescue teams. Other than a ripped sail, everything seemed perfectly normal. The engine idled in neutral and the marine radio was on. Three wallets were on the table.

Her emergency equipment, including life jackets and the emergency locator beacon, appeared not to have been touched. The dinghy was still lashed to the hull.

By late yesterday 12 aircraft and four vessels were searching 4,000sq nautical miles for the three men who set out on Sunday from Airlie Beach in North Queensland. An Australian Army Black Hawk helicopter was expected to join the search today.

The missing yachtsmen were named locally as Derek Batten, 56, the skipper, and his neighbours Peter and James Tunstead, brothers aged 69 and 63, from Perth, Western Australia. Police would not confirm their identities.

The men bought the 40ft catamaran at Airlie Beach last week and planned to sail north and west around Australia’s vast northern coast to the other side of the continent.

Keryn Grey, James Tunstead’s daughter, said that the family was hoping that the men were in a dinghy and that the catamaran drifted away. “We are hoping that they forgot to anchor it \ and it’s drifted off, the three idiots, and \ not been able to get back to it,” she said.

Ms Grey said that the trip was supposed to take six to eight weeks. “They were just going to stop every night, anchor close to shore all the way back around the top and down the coast,” she said. “It was going to be their trip of a lifetime.”

The Kaz 11 was spotted by a coastal patrol aircraft on Wednesday 200km (125 miles) north of her departure point, drifting in calm seas. Because the patrol could not make radio contact with the catamaran or see anybody aboard, a rescue helicopter was sent out on Thursday and a crewman winched down.

By chance, a television crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was on the helicopter making a documentary about the rescuers’ work. Their footage was broadcast last night. The director, Jan Catoni, said: “There was concern for the safety of the rescue officer who was winched down because he was boarding a vessel by himself. We had no sense of what he might find.”

Footage shows him emerging from the cabin eventually with his arms outstretched and palms turned upward to indicate that nobody was aboard.

John Hall, a spokesman for the Queensland sea rescue service, said: “It was a little eerie because all the personal effects of the crew were still there. There were sunglasses on the table, two laptop computers set up and running. And the table had obviously been prepared for a meal.”

Has history repeated itself?

— The Mary Celeste was found drifting off the Portuguese coast by the Dei Gratia on December 5, 1872. It was waterlogged but intact, with nine barrels of industrial alcohol empty and the lifeboat missing.

— The tale was popularised by Arthur Conan Doyle, who renamed her Marie Celeste and added details since taken for fact, such as the discovery of still-warm food

— Theories to explain the crew’s disappearance:

— Alcohol leaked into the hold and, smelling the fumes, the crew fled, believing that the ship was set to explode.

--The ship hit a waterspout which alarmed the crew and induced them to flee

— A fungus growing on the ship’s bread caused the crew to hallucinate and go mad.