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Yacht deaths: Boat may have hit rocks, not large ship

May 1, 2012 |  4:09 pm

An online tracking system shows that a vessel identified as the Aegean struck a jagged island, potentially upending the original theory that the 37-foot sailboat was smashed by an oncoming tanker or freighter.

The boat, one of more than 200 vessels competing in the annual Newport-to-Ensenada race, was destroyed Saturday off the Mexican coastline. All four crew members were lost, though authorities are still searching for one of the bodies.

Experienced sailors and competitors in the yachting competition said Tuesday they’d been made aware of a GPS-based tracking system that shows the Aegean running aground on a far end of North Coronado Island at 1:36 a.m. Saturday, the time that sponsors of the race said the accident occurred. The islands are about 15 miles south of San Diego Bay.

Spot, the satellite personal tracking company, hosts Web pages where friends and family members of sailors can check on a boat's progress.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Sean Groark said investigators are aware of the tracking map but could not attest to its accuracy because it is commercially operated.

The destruction of the Aegean remains under investigation.

"The Coast Guard is aware of it, and we take that information into account," Groark said. "We investigate all possibilities and endeavor to not jump to conclusions."

Striking the island at night is a plausible theory, said Brad Avery, director of the Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship. Sailors, based on the account of race officials, also have speculated that a tanker or freighter may have hit the boat.

Other boaters spotted small pieces of the Aegean, prompting the search.

Ensenada racer Scot Tempesta posted a link to the tracking system on his website Sailing Anarchy on Tuesday, igniting the speculation. Other sailors who had tracked their progress on Spot posted the link on his site's discussion boards, he said.

Tempesta sailed past the islands Friday night and the swell was running about 4 feet, enough to potentially break a boat up on the rocks, he said.

"It is a nasty piece of little ocean there," Tempesta said. "It's deceptive just how rough it can be there."

To verify if the boat struck the rocks, divers would need to travel to the island and search for the boat's keel or engine, Avery said.

Those two pieces are the heaviest on a boat and would probably fall directly to the bottom where the vessel was demolished.

But such a salvage or diving operation would typically be conducted by a private party, and not at the taxpayer's expense, Groark said.

"It doesn't change the way we search," he said, adding that Coast Guard helicopters flew over that part of the island and spotted nothing on the rocky land.

"They're pretty rocky and jagged," he said. "There's no beach, it's all rock."

Rich Roberts, spokesman for the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., the race's organizing body, said, "This is really revealing" when presented with the information Tuesday. "This nails it," he said, but added, “Boats have hit rocks before and were never totally demolished like this."


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-- Mike Reicher, Daily Pilot

Image: GPS tracking of the Aegean. Credit: Spot LLC