FALMOUTH, Mass. (AP) _ The Coast Guard plucked a retired Arkansas congressman and his wife to safety from their disabled sailboat in stormy seas, a grateful Ed Bethune said Wednesday.

As night fell Tuesday, a rescuer dived from a helicopter into the Atlantic Ocean and swam through 25-foot waves to help Bethune, 54, and his wife, Lana, whose sailboat hit a gale about 210 miles south of Cape Cod.

''If somebody would have said 60 days ago, 'Let's figure out the toughest scenario, and put two people in their early 50s out there and rescue them,' well, this was it,'' former U.S. Rep. Bethune said in a telephone interview. He added that winds had been at 40 knots, gusting to 50 knots and seas were heavy.

The Bethunes, who suffered only from exhaustion, were taken to a Coast Guard Air Station, officials said.

The Coast Guard said the Bethunes' boat had lost engine power, and they were unable to hoist sails because of high winds.

After drifting for 1 1/2 days in their 30-foot sailboat Salute, the couple, exhausted and fearing the craft would capsize, called for help at 3 p.m. Tuesday, the Coast Guard said.

Bethune said he waited to call because ''we have a good blue-water boat and felt perhaps the weather might improve. It's not uncommon to hit a storm when crossing the ocean. So we decided to see if we could ride it out.

''But it became apparent that we needed to call the Coast Guard.''

When the helicopter arrived, the boat's rigging was swinging so violently the couple couldn't be lifted directly from the craft, the Coast Guard said.

They were told to abandon the boat and get into a life raft.

Petty Officer Roderic Parker dove from the chopper into the ocean and helped Mrs. Bethune into a rescue basket to be hoisted up.

But Parker then found that the life raft, with Bethune, had been blown about 75 yards away, and he had to swim through 25-foot waves to reach it, the Coast Guard said.

The basket was lowered twice more and the men were hoisted aboard.

Bethune said the Coast Guard had told him they'd practiced the very same maneuver two weeks ago.

''Because of that this went off without a hitch,'' he said. ''And this young man helping us was making his first rescue attempt.''

The next time Bethune sees U.S. Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., who deals with Coast Guard matters, he said, ''I'm going to tell him my story and offer to testify about just how good these people are.''