NEWPORT BEACH (AP) — A yacht involved in a race off the coast of California and Mexico apparently collided at night with a much larger vessel, leaving three crew members dead and one missing, a sailing organization said early Sunday. It was the state’s second ocean racing tragedy this month.
The 37-foot Aegean carrying a crew of four was reported missing Saturday during a 125-mile Newport Beach, Calif. to Ensenada, Mexico yacht race, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
The Newport Ocean Sailing Association, the race organizer, said the accident occurred late Friday or early Saturday several miles off the coast near the ocean border of the two countries.
“It appeared the damage was not inflicted by an explosion but by a collision with a ship much larger than the 37-foot vessel,” association spokesman Rich Roberts said in a news release early Sunday.
Race officials believe there are few other possibilities for what caused the accident, Roberts later told The Associated Press, speaking by phone from Ensenada.
He said details were still scarce but it was possible that if the smaller boat was bobbing around in light wind, the crew might not have been able to get out of the way of a larger ship, perhaps a freighter. The race goes through shipping lanes and it’s possible for a large ship to hit a sailboat and not even know it, especially at night, he said.
Roberts said a race tracking system indicated that the boat disappeared about 1:30 a.m. PDT Saturday.
A Coast Guard search turned up the boat’s wreckage, including the rear transom with the boat’s name on it, the association release said.
Three crew members of the sailboat were found dead and a search was under way early Sunday for the fourth. Coast Guard boats and two aircraft as well as Mexican navy and civilian vessels were involved.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Henry Dunphy said Sunday that searchers were focusing on an area about 10 miles off the Mexican coast and about 10 miles south of U.S. waters.
The Aegean is registered to Theo Mavromatis, 49, of Redondo Beach. The race association didn’t know if he was aboard the boat during the race. Marina Sailing in Redondo Beach lists a boat named Aegean, which matches the model and length of the missing vessel, among the boats it rents out for $325 a day.
A woman answering a call at a number listed for Mavromatis declined to speak Sunday morning.
A boater at King Harbor in Redondo Beach, where the yacht was based, told KCAL9 News that he knew one of the men aboard The Aegean. He said they all were experienced crew members and graduated at the top of their class.
The Newport Beach Patch website posted a photo that shows the crew at the start of the race Friday. Four men in royal blue T-shirts are on the deck as the boat cuts through calm waters. One man is waving and another appears to be smiling.
Other yachts near the Coronado Islands in Mexico — four small, mostly uninhabited islands — reported seeing debris Saturday morning. Searchers in the afternoon found the bodies and debris from the Aegean, whose home port is Redondo Beach, Dunphy said
Two of the dead were recovered by a civilian boat, while the third was found by a Coast Guard helicopter.
Two of the dead have been identified. Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, was a married man who hailed from Florida. William Reed Johnson, 57, lived in Torrance.
Dunphy said conditions were fine for sailing, with good visibility and moderate ocean swells of 6-to-8 feet.
A total of 210 boats were registered in the 65th annual yacht race, according to the Newport Ocean Sailing Association’s website. The race started off from Newport Beach on Friday and many boats finished in Ensenada Saturday.
About 50 people gathered in morning fog Sunday at the Ensenada marina to watch the final arrivals. A notice tacked to a bulletin board alongside the racing times informed spectators of the tragedy.
The association’s commodore told the Associate Press that he didn’t know the members of the Aegean or how many people were aboard.
“This has never happened in the entire 65 years of the race that I’m aware of,” Chuck Iverson said. “We’re all shocked by this whole event.”
The deaths come two weeks after five sailors died in the waters off Northern California when their 38-foot yacht was hit by powerful waves, smashed into rocks and capsized during a race. Three sailors survived the wreck and the body of another was quickly recovered. Four remained missing until one body was recovered last Thursday.
The deadly accident near the Farallon Islands, about 27 miles west of San Francisco, prompted the Coast Guard to temporarily stop races in ocean waters outside San Francisco Bay. The Coast Guard said the suspension will allow it and the offshore racing community to study the accident and race procedures to determine whether changes are needed to improve safety. U.S. Sailing, the governing body of yacht racing, is leading the safety review, which is expected to be completed within the next month.
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