About 2000 people aboard a cruise ship became part of an unexpected rescue mission yesterday after a yacht struck a reef between Australia and Noumea.

The New Zealand yacht Sambaluka, carrying a group of four -— Mark Iaconetti, 41, an American, and Rob Cole, 41, the New Zealand co-owner of the boat, and two French crew members -— ran aground on the reef about 3am and set off a distress beacon.

A few hours later, the Maritime Operations Centre received a broken mayday call and maritime rescue authorities co-ordinated with P&O cruise ship, Pacific Sun, which was the closest available vessel.

Captain Justin Lawes said the ship was immediately turned around to make the six-hour, 120 nautical mile full-steam journey to the reef.

Lawes said passengers had been very understanding about the rescue mission.

“They’ve been absolutely magnificent actually, the passengers,” he told NZPA.

“I’m sure a lot of people had many plans and that has been upset. Obviously we’re arriving 24 hours later into Brisbane, but they have been 100 percent supportive with the whole operation.”

By the time the ship arrived to help the three men and one woman, the yacht had sunk and the four were in a life boat, dropped from a French military aircraft.

The ship launched a smaller boat with seven crew members once it was a mile from the reef, and the stranded yachties were transferred to the ship.

Lawes said the rescue took about an hour and went very smoothly.

“I’m very proud of the crew members and how effectively they carried out the rescue mission. We do train extensively in carrying out rescue situations such as these, and its these times we see that all that training has paid off.”

The four were very shaken last night, Lawes said, but their spirits had improved somewhat today.

“They’re very grateful and thankful this morning, although the two of them who are owners of the yacht … have not only been through this traumatic experience but lost their home as well and most of their possessions.”

The crew had been accommodated on the ship last night and would be again tonight before they disembarked with the rest of the passengers in Brisbane tomorrow.

The accommodation and meals were sure to be complimentary, he said.

In his 23 years at sea, Lawes had been involved in three rescues including yesterday’s effort. NZPA