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Published April 30, 2012, 09:01 AM

No distress signals sent before ship hit yacht

ENSENADA, Mexico (AP) — Sailboat shards floating in the ocean were the first sign something was wrong. Eric Lamb spotted them while on safety patrol for a 124-mile yacht race between California and Mexico.

By: ELLIOT SPAGAT, Associated Press

ENSENADA, Mexico (AP) — Sailboat shards floating in the ocean were the first sign something was wrong. Eric Lamb spotted them while on safety patrol for a 124-mile yacht race between California and Mexico.

The debris, mostly pieces no more than six inches long, led officials to the bodies of three yacht crew members believed to have been killed when a large ship — perhaps a freighter — slammed into their boat in the middle of the night, California's second deadly yacht race accident in a month. A boat that smashed into rocks and capsized during a race off Northern California two weeks ago prompted the Coast Guard to temporarily stop races in ocean waters outside San Francisco Bay.

Farther south though, the Newport Ocean Sailing Association's race between Newport Beach, Calif., and Ensenada, Mexico, went forward on Friday. On Saturday afternoon, Lamb spotted the wreckage of the Aegean. Lamb, 62, said the 37-foot racing yacht looked like it "had gone through a blender."

"It was real obvious it had been hit just because the debris was so small," he said Sunday. Officials suspended the search for a fourth sailor later that day.

The Coast Guard said conditions were fine for sailing, with good visibility and moderate ocean swells of 6-to-8 feet. 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 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.

A GPS race tracking system indicated the Aegean disappeared about 1:30 a.m. PDT (4:30 a.m. EDT) 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.

Lamb, who has been patrolling the race for eight years as captain for a private company, saw the debris nine hours later, called the Coast Guard, and searched for identifying information. He and a partner found a life raft with a registration number and a panel with the ship's name.

Race officials said they had few explanations for what may have happened to the Aegean.

Hundreds of race participants held a moment of silence at the Newport Ocean Sailing Association's award ceremony, many of them stunned and puzzled. The episode immediately sparked a debate over the 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."

Gary Jobson, 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," Jobson said. "We need to take a step back and take a deep breath with what we're doing. Something is going wrong here."

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.

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. The winner, Robert Lane of Long Beach Yacht Club, finished Saturday in 23 hours, 26 minutes, 40 seconds.

The race attracts sailors of all skills, including some who are new to long distances. The Aegean competed in one of the lower categories, which allows participants to use their motors when winds drop to a certain level.

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

The Aegean is registered to Theo Mavromatis, of Redondo Beach, Calif. The race sponsor didn't know if he was aboard but Gary Gilpin at Marina Sailing, which rents out the Aegean when Mavromatis isn't using it, said the 49-year-old skipper took the yacht out earlier in the week for the competition.

Gilpin said Mavromatis, an engineer, was an experienced sailor who had won the Newport to Ensenada race in the past.

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.

The accident near the Farallon Islands, about 27 miles west of San Francisco, prompted the Coast Guard's temporary suspension of races outside San Francisco Bay. The 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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Contributing AP reporters are Christopher Weber and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles, Bernie Wilson in San Diego, and Jason Dearen in San Francisco.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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