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Cause of fatal Newport Beach-to-Ensenada yacht race is still unconfirmed

The Aegean with crew members at the start of a 125-mile Newport Beach, CA to Ensenada, Mexico yacht race on Friday, April 27, 2012.
The Aegean with crew members at the start of a 125-mile Newport Beach, CA to Ensenada, Mexico yacht race on Friday, April 27, 2012.
AP Photo/, Susan Hoffman

Authorities Monday are still trying to determine what happened to a ship that was reported missing and later found destroyed during a weekend boat race from Newport Beach to Ensenada, Mexico. Three crew members were killed and one is missing.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the 37-foot Aegean, which began the 125-mile race carrying a crew of four, was reported missing Saturday. A GPS race tracking system indicated the vessel disappeared about 1:30 a.m. PDT. Conditions at the time were fine for sailing, say authorities, with good visibility and moderate ocean swells.

No signs of distress were reported before the wreckage was found, notes the Daily Breeze. The yacht appears to have collided with a much larger vessel at night, several miles off the coast near the border, said the Newport Ocean Sailing Association on Sunday. 

53-year-old Kevin Rudolph of Manhattan Beach was confirmed Monday as the third sailor who died over the weekend. Also killed were 57-year-old William Reed Johnson, Jr. of Torrance and 64-year-old Joseph Lester Stewart of Bradenton, Fla. A Redondo Beach skipper, 49-year-old Theo Mavromatis, is missing.

Nearby participants reportedly said they heard or saw a freighter around the time the Aegean vanished. The race goes through shipping lanes and it is possible, said Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the race organizer, for a large ship to hit a sailboat and not even know it, especially at night.

At that hour, organizers were not closely monitoring race activity. A disappearing signal is also not an immediate cause for alarm, say organizers, as the receivers are known to glitch.

Eric Lamb, a safety patrol race official, first spotted shards of the boat floating in the ocean about nine hours later. The wreckage looked like it "had gone through a blender," he said.

The deaths are reportedly the first fatalities in the race's 65-year history. A U.S. Sailing safety review is underway. "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 president of the U.S. Sailing Association, Gary Jobson, will be appointing an independent panel to investigate the accident. "I'm horrified," said Jobson. "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...Something is going wrong here."


Lisa Brenner can be reached via Twitter @lisa_brenner