Yacht May Have Hit Freighter in Deadly U.S. Crash

By ELLIOT SPAGAT | May 1, 2012

Officials for a yacht race that goes through shipping lanes off the U.S.-Mexican coast said they had few explanations for the deadly crash of one competitor other than a collision with a freighter or tanker that did not see the smaller vessel at night.

Three bodies have been found and a fourth crew member remained missing Monday as the president of the U.S. Sailing Association said his group will appoint an independent panel to investigate.

“I’m horrified. I’ve done a lot of sailboat racing and I’ve hit logs in the water, and I’ve seen a man go overboard, but this takes the whole thing to a new level,” said Gary Jobson, the association’s president. “We need to take a step back and take a deep breath with what we’re doing. Something is going wrong here.”

The Coast Guard, Mexican navy and civilian vessels scoured the waters off the shore of both countries for the fourth sailor before suspending their search Sunday evening.

The Newport Ocean Sailing Association’s 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, said Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the race organizer. Two race participants who were in the area at the time the Aegean vanished told The Associated Press they saw or heard a freighter.

Eric Lamb, who has been patrolling the race for eight years as captain for a private company, saw the debris of the Aegean and found two bodies, badly scraped and bruised. The U.S. Coast Guard recovered a third body.

“It was real obvious it had been hit just because the debris was so small,” Lamb said Sunday.

Chuck Iverson, commodore of the sailing association, said the collision was a “fluke,” noting how common night races are along Mexico’s Baja California coast.

Skies were clear and winds were light when the boat went missing on the course from Newport Beach, Calif., to Ensenada. Mexico.

A GPS race tracking system indicated the Aegean disappeared about 1:30 a.m. local time Saturday, Roberts said. Race organizers weren’t closely monitoring the race at that hour, but a disappearing signal is no cause for alarm because receivers occasionally suffer glitches, he said.

“Somebody may have thought the thing was broken,” Roberts said.

Officials have not determined the cause of the accident, and would not speculate on what ship, if any, might have collided with the sailboat.

The episode immediately sparked a debate over safety of ocean races.

“Quite honestly, I’m amazed it hasn’t happened before,” said Lamb. “You get 200 boats out there, they lose their way, and they’re just bobbing around.”

The deaths are the first fatalities in the race’s 65 years. The race attracted 675 boats at its peak in 1983 before falling on hard times several years ago amid fears of Mexico’s drug-fueled violence.

Participation has picked up recently, reaching 213 boats this year.

Two of the dead were William Reed Johnson Jr., 57, of California, and Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Florida. The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office was withholding the name of the third sailor pending notification of relatives.

The deaths come two weeks after five sailors died in the waters off Northern California when their 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 Thursday.

(Contributing AP reporters are Christopher Weber and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles, Bernie Wilson in San Diego, and Jason Dearen in San Francisco.)

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