A LONE yachtsman was winched to safety by a rescue helicopter moments before his yacht broke up on rocks.

Coastguard Bernie Cother said today the man was rescued in the nick of time, although he collapsed unconscious, once on board the aircraft.

Mr Cother said: "He was a very lucky man. Within a couple of minutes of him being winched up, his yacht broke up."

Rescue services had picked up a faint mayday message from the yacht, but the link kept breaking up.

Unable to plot the position of the yacht - the Joan of Arc - the Redcar lifeboat was launched to search the seas to the south and the Staithes lifeboat dispatched head north.

The yacht was located below cliffs near Boulby, east Cleveland. It had been driven aground by gale force winds and heavy seas up to three metres high.

Mr Cother said: "You don't mess around with the rocks there. Basically, we had got a very broken up call that he was in trouble. We did not know who he was or where he was."

The drama unfolded on Sunday evening. A Sea King rescue helicopter from RAF Leconfield was called after attempts by the Staithes RNLI lifeboat to run in and rescue the lone sailor on board the yacht were aborted because of the worsening weather and sea conditions.

Redcar RNLI helmsman Andy Beevis said: "Conditions were very difficult and were worsening by the minute.

"The yacht was hard aground and was being battered by the seas.

"The best thing was for the man to stay aboard his yacht. If he'd tried to make his way ashore he'd have faced the serious risk of injury or worse."

The man collapsed unconscious once inside the helicopter, with multiple fractures to one hand. He later regained consciousness.

He was flown to Middlesbroughs James Cook University Hospital for treatment.