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Disaster strikes again for a sailing race

A 37-foot boat and its crew are lost in the Newport Beach-to-Ensenada regatta, possibly after being struck in the night by a much larger ship. Three bodies are recovered, and the search for a fourth crew member is suspended.

April 30, 2012|By Mona Shadia, Mike Reicher and Steve Virgen, Daily Pilot and Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
(Courtesy Rick Roberts )

Organizers of the famed Newport Beach-to-Ensenada sailing regatta were stunned by the mysterious loss of four crew members aboard a 37-foot boat that disappeared in mid-race, marking the first fatalities in the event's 65-year history.

While the U.S. Coast Guard was still investigating the accident, regatta organizers said they believed the boat was hit and demolished by a much larger ship — perhaps a freighter or tanker — passing in the dark early Saturday.

The boat disappeared from the online tracking system around 1:30 a.m. Saturday. Two sailors on other boats recalled seeing a large ship in the area.

"We're all in shock," said Chuck Iverson, commodore of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., sponsor of the 125-mile race, which is one of the sport's most popular. "We're still trying to piece it together and find out more from the investigation."

Three bodies were recovered Saturday from a scattered debris field near the Coronado Islands, about 15 miles south of San Diego. None was wearing a life jacket.

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After scouring a 600-square-mile area Sunday with ships and aircraft, the Coast Guard on Sunday night suspended its search indefinitely for the fourth crew member. "We've exhausted all possibilities," said a spokesman.

The Coast Guard has yet to determine a cause for the apparent destruction of the boat, called the Aegean. But racing officials believe it was struck by a "much larger vessel".

The Coast Guard's lead investigator for San Diego, Bill Fitzgerald, said investigators were "tracking down any vessel that may have been in their area."

The deaths were the first in the history of the race, which this year had 213 entries and has a history of attracting such world-class skippers as Dennis Conner, Bill Ficker and Dave Ullman, as well as celebrities like Walter Cronkite, Buddy Ebsen and Humphrey Bogart.

The destruction of the Aegean comes two weeks after a 38-foot sailboat was swamped by two rogue waves during a race around the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. Five of the eight crew members were killed.

Despite these two disasters, statistics kept by the Coast Guard indicate that even though the waters off the West Coast are heavily used by recreational boaters, merchant ships and U.S. Navy vessels, accidents are exceedingly rare.

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