The US coastguard suspended its search in the Pacific for star Chinese sailor Guo Chuan, it said, after rescuers boarded his drifting yacht and confirmed he was not there but found his life jacket.
Guo “was a professional mariner with a deep passion for sailing”, coastguard Captain Robert Hendrickson said in a statement on Thursday.
“Our deepest condolences go out not only to his family and friends but also to his racing team and the sailing community.”
Footage released by the coastguard showed Guo’s 97-foot trimaran Qingdao China drifting across the waves hundreds of kilometres west of Hawaii, its red sail emblazoned “Peace and Sport”.
Both a US Navy helicopter crew and a coastguard Hercules aircraft overflying the vessel had been previously been unable to contact Guo, it said.
Guo, 51, became in 2013 the first Chinese sailor to complete a non-stop solo circumnavigation of the globe and is by far the country’s biggest sailing star.
He set off from San Francisco on October 18 in an attempt to set a record crossing of the Pacific, but his team lost contact with him on Tuesday afternoon Beijing time.
They alerted US authorities, and rescuers from the USS Makin Island amphibious ship reached the Qingdao China on Thursday. “The boat crew confirmed Chuan was not on the vessel although his life jacket remains aboard,” the coastguard statement said.
They lowered the mainsail and left the Qingdao China – originally built as the Idec 2 for French yachtsman Francis Joyon – at sea, it added, saying his racing team was arranging to salvage the vessel. On a verified Weibo social media account the team said Guo’s personal items had been recovered.
The Chinese consulate in Los Angeles had earlier urged the US authorities to exert “greater efforts” in the search, China News Service reported.
In a sailing diary entry for October 20 posted by his team Guo said that listening to a recording of his two sons’ laughter on his computer was “the world’s most beautiful song, the song that puts me most at ease”.
Guo had previously said his greatest fear was to fall in the water, Xinhua reported, citing him as saying: “I fear being separated from the ship when I am sailing solo.”
What happened to Guo remained unclear. His team said they had observed his speed slowed on Tuesday and attempted to contact him, but he did not answer either satellite calls or internet communication. The US searchers had found a broken sail in the water, they added.
Chinese fans expressed fear for the mariner, with one writing that it was “likely he was adjusting or repairing the sail when he was struck or an accident occurred and he fell”.
The US coastguard said it was called when Guo’s team had not received notification from him for 24 hours. The sailor had previously been “in constant contact” with his shore team and family and was “not likely to miss scheduled calls”, it added.
The search covered an area of about 12,000 sq km over two days.
Additional reporting by Jane Li