A British-owned oil tanker broke in half and caught fire Thursday in the heavy seas of the North Atlantic and rescuers said they found two scorched lifeboats but no sign of the ship's 27 crew members.

"Both lifeboats were empty and both were badly burned," Canadian Coast Guard official Paul Kendrick said. "Survival out there is not good. The water is very frigid. In the water, with no (thermal) survival suits on, you probably would perish in a matter of hours, at most."The 65,000-ton Odyssey, laden with crude oil, broke up in 25-foot seas and 45-knot winds 700 miles northeast of St. John's, Newfoundland. There was no indication what caused the ship to break in two and catch fire.

The Soviet weather vessel, Passat, picked up the ship's distress call at 8:45 p.m. MST Wednesday and arrived on the scene two hours later to help search for the 15 Greek and 12 Honduran crew members, said Roger Lowes of the Lloyd's shipping intelligence unit in London.

"Odyssey in two pieces, vessel on fire," the Soviet vessel radioed from the scene.

A Canadian defense department patrol aircraft surveyed the scene Thursday looking for survivors.

A spokeswoman for Polembros Shipping Ltd., owner of the stricken vessel, said in London: "We've not heard of any survivors yet."

There was still a possibility that the ship was carrying rubber life rafts in addition to the two burned lifeboats, which were made of wood or fiberglass, Kendrick said.

"That's (life rafts) what we're looking for now," Kendrick said.

Initial Coast Guard reports that both halves of the ship had sunk were inaccurate, he said. The stern sank, but the bow was still afloat as of Thursday afternoon. Kendrick attributed the erroneous information to atmospheric interference that garbled communications between searchers and rescue headquarters in Halifax.

In addition to the Soviet vessel and the Canadian plane, the merchant vessel Maritime Wisdom was en route to help in the search, he said.