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STORM FORCES GERMANS TO DITCH BALLOON

Heavy rain and ice forced a German team to abandon the first trans-Atlantic balloon race Saturday, ditching their craft in the ocean about 550 miles off the Canadian coast, organizers said.

The two-man crew was picked up by the Bahamas-registered oil tanker Granite at about 4 p.m. EDT, two hours after their ice-covered balloon went down, according to race coordinator Blethyn Richards.The two balloonists, Erich Kraft and Jochen Mass, were safe and in good spirits, Richards said from the race control center in Rotterdam airport.

The other four balloons in the 3-day-old Chrysler Transatlantic Challenge - representing Belgium, the United States, the Netherlands and Britain - were not affected by ice or a downpour that hit the Germans early Saturday, Richards said.

Belgian balloonists Wim Verstraeten and Bertrand Piccard held a commanding lead 200 miles ahead of Americans Troy Bradley and Richard Abruzzo and crossed the halfway mark earlier Saturday.

The Germans had been in last place since Friday. They reported problems because of ice forming on the balloon's skin early Saturday and descended to about 5,000 feet to try to melt it, Richards said.

It was then that they were caught in the rainstorm, which forced them to use up precious fuel trying to maintain altitude.

"They soared too high looking for wind, and that can be dangerous at night when there's no sun to stop ice forming," Richards said.

The balloons, held aloft by helium and hot air, took off from Bangor, Maine, before dawn Wednesday on a perilous 3,000-mile ocean crossing that has only been achieved five times. This is the first race.

The identical British-built balloons are made of lightweight composite plastic. The gondolas slung beneath them are designed to float.