A Belgian team won the first trans-Atlantic balloon race before dawn Monday, then dropped into a Spanish village after nearly five days aloft and a journey of more than 2,580 miles.
Belgians Wim Verstraeten and Bertrand Piccard prevailed over a field of five identical nine-story balloons that left Bangor, Maine, on Wednesday.Ice and rain forced a German team to ditch in mid-ocean on Saturday and violent rainstorms forced a Dutch team to ditch off the coast of Britain Monday.
The Dutchmen, Gerhard Hoogeslag and Evert Louwman, were rescued by a Royal Navy helicopter after going down about 60 miles southwest of the Cornish coast. A squall line had pulled them away from France and back out toward open sea.
The British team was also in difficulty several hours after the race was won. Britons Don Cameron and Rob Bayly had to use an emergency battery after reporting a generator failure.
They were minimizing communication with the center, although they appeared to be in no imminent danger, officials said.
The British were about 100 miles out to sea and shooting for landfall over the Portuguese coast.
Americans Richard Abruzzo and Troy Bradley, meanwhile, were roughly 350 miles west of Gibraltar after drifting too far south. They, however, were traveling in good weather.
"It's pouring here like nothing you've ever seen before. The balloon is heavy as lead," the Dutch team said in an urgent telex to the Rotterdam Airport tracking center several hours before ditching.
"They're cold, in shock, and being taken to a hospital, but otherwise they're OK," said race director Alan Noble.
Landfall for the Belgian team was achieved at 3:30 a.m., according to officials at the tracking center.
"We made it, we made it, we made it!" the Belgians said in a telex as they flew over the seaside town of Viana do Castelo, near the Spanish border.
The two reported a "soft landing" in the Spanish village of Peque, near the Portuguese border, then being dragged about 1,500 feet because the deflation vent for the balloon's helium chamber did not open.
A retrieval party on the ground in Spain was on its way to meet the victors, race officials said.
"We are very tired, but we feel great," Verstraeten told The Associated Press via radiotelephone just after the Belgians' victory.
Noble praised the Belgians' skill at holding a steady course in the unsteerable craft. He added that they prevailed against the odds, as the more experienced British and American balloonists had been favored to win.
Although the duo raced under the Belgian flag, Piccard is a Swiss citizen. Verstraeten is a Belgian aerial photographer.
The Atlantic crossing is dangerous and has been done by balloon only five times since 1978. Five people have died in failed attempts.