ENSENADA, Mexico - Eric Lamb was doing safety patrol on a 124-mile yacht race when he spotted a boat that appeared too close to Mexico's Coronado Islands. He never got there.
As his twin-engine boat neared the uninhabited islands just south of San Diego, he stumbled on sailboat shards that were mostly no more than six inches long strewn over about two square miles. He saw a small refrigerator, a white seat cushion and empty containers of yogurt and soy milk.
Over several hours, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter directed him in his search and led him to two dead bodies floating with their backs up, badly scraped and bruised. The Coast Guard recovered a third body and the fourth member of the crew was missing early Monday in California's second deadly accident this month involving an ocean race.
Lamb, 62, said the 37-foot 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.
Three sailors were killed in the accident and a fourth was missing, officials said. 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.
Hundreds of race participants held a moment of silence at the Newport Ocean Sailing Association's award ceremony, many of them stunned and puzzled. Skies were clear and winds were light when the boat went missing on the course from Newport Beach, Calif., to Ensenada.
A GPS race tracking system indicated the Aegean disappeared about 1:30 a.m. PT (4:30 a.m. ET) Saturday, said Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the race organizer. 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.
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.
Race officials said they had few explanations for what may have happened to the Aegean other than it must have collided with a ship like a freighter or tanker that did not see the smaller vessel.
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."
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.
Shipping lanes crossed
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 Roberts, the race spokesman. Two race participants who were in the area at the time the Aegean vanished told The Associated Press they saw or heard a freighter.
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, 49, 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. Three sailors survived the wreck and the body of another was quickly recovered. Four remained missing until one body was recovered Thursday.
The 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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