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Despite recent tragedies, boat accidents in Pacific Ocean are rare

April 29, 2012 |  1:52 pm

For the second time in a month, sailboat crew members have died while racing off the California coast.

Two weeks ago, five died when their 38-foot boat was swamped by two waves near the Farallon Islands, 27 miles from San Francisco.

And now, four crew members are believed to have been killed when their 37-foot-boat disappeared Saturday on a race between Newport Beach and Ensenada, Mexico. The regatta sponsors believe the sailboat collided with a "much larger vessel" although the U.S. Coast Guard has yet to determine a cause.

But despite these two tragedies, 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.

In 2010, the last year for which statistics were available, there were six accidents involving recreational boaters reported to the Coast Guard three miles or more into the Pacific Ocean -- with only one fatality. By comparison, there were 18 accidents in the Atlantic.

Sailboat accidents are similarly rare, according to the same report, with eight deaths reported nationwide in 2010. Racing deaths, regardless of the kind of boat, are also rare. Two deaths and 19 injuries were reported nationwide in 2010.

By comparison, there were 10 deaths of kayakers and more than 300 in motorboat accidents nationwide.

The Coast Guard report suggests that one reason ocean accidents are rare is that crew members of power boats or sailboats who venture in the ocean are more likely to take safety courses. Statistics indicate a preponderance of fatal accidents of all kinds involve people who have little or no safety training.

A spokesman for the Coast Guard said the agency urges all boaters to file a "float plan" with a family member, neighbor, marine operator or park ranger. Details can be found at www.floatplancentral.org.

The three most common causes nationwide for fatalities among recreational boaters are alcohol, hazardous waters and operator inattention, according to the Coast Guard.

For the Newport-to-Ensenada race, organizers kept track of the 200-plus boats with an online tracking system. The Aegean disappeared about 1:30 a.m. Saturday.

Saturday afternoon, three bodies were found amid a debris field near the sparsely populated Coronado Islands about 15 miles south of San Diego. The yacht's transom was found floating. On Sunday, the Coast Guard and Mexican navy continued to search for a fourth crew member.

The fatalities are the first ever recorded in the 65 years that the annual Newport-to-Ensenada race has been run, race organizers said.

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-- Tony Perry in San Diego

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