Witness Says Cargo Ship Caused Yacht Crash

U.S. Sailing Association President Says Witness On Another Sailboat Saw Cargo Ship Hit Aegean

UPDATED: 11:46 pm PDT April 30, 2012

SAN DIEGO — A witness on another sailboat claims she saw a cargo ship hit a yacht off the Coronado Islands, resulting in a crash that left three men dead and one missing.

A spokesman for Newport Ocean Sailing Association, which puts on the annual Newport to Ensenada race, said the wreckage of the 37-foot Aegean dropped off the race’s boat-tracking system about 1:30 a.m. Saturday, and the debris field found when the sun rose later the same day suggested it was hit by a much la
The president of the U.S. Sailing Association told 10News over the phone that a woman on another sailboat witnessed the accident, telling investigators the Aegean was hit by a cargo ship.

U.S. Sailing Association President Gary Jobson told 10News his group plans to appoint an independent panel to investigate the accident.

“At night, it’s conceivable that the ship did not see the small boat, but there were a couple hundred boats on the water, so for sure the ship had to know there was a lot of traffic in the area,” Jobson said.

Sailors who knew skipper Theo Mavromatis, 49, of Redondo Beach, said he was conscientious, safety oriented and had his Hunter 376 outfitted with “all the bells and whistles,” including radar, which is a collision-avoidance tool.

10News has learned many yachtsmen now have an Automatic Identification System, known as AIS.

Les George, an Oceanside yachtsman who sails a 39-foot yacht called Obsession, demonstrated how the system picks up signals from ships that are sometimes miles away and transmits their position, telling the vessel name, course, speed and destination.

“But if the boat isn’t transmitting, you just cannot see them until they’re on top of you,” said George, who has sailed in the Newport to Ensenada race at least a dozen times.

Winds were light at the time, and if only one person were on deck, he may have had trouble starting the boat’s auxiliary engine and getting out of the way in time.

“It’s a tragic accident, I mean, you’re out there and its dark, everybody’s racing with minimal lights,” said George, who spoke with some friends who just returned from the race. “They’re saying it was a light wind race, with not a lot of sea condition but there was a ton of boat traffic out there.”

On Saturday afternoon, the bodies of Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, Fla. and 57-year-old William Reed Johnson Jr. of Torrance were recovered, along with the body of Kevin Rudolph.

The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office said Monday that Rudolph died of blunt force injuries to his head and neck; Johnson died of multiple blunt force injuries; and Stewart drowned.

The ship that struck the fiberglass sloop has not been identified. Some of the first rescuers on scene were able to identify a debris field as that of the Aegean, because its transom, emblazoned with its name, was still afloat.

The yacht was one of 213 sailboats in the roughly 125-mile race, which started about noon Friday. Most boats finished Saturday.

The U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search Sunday afternoon.

“It’s never easy to make the decision to suspend a search and rescue case,” said Capt. Sean Mahoney, the commander of the agency’s San Diego sector. “The Coast Guard extends its sympathies to the families and friends of the Aegean crew. They will be in our thoughts and prayers.”

A local private rescue group has stepped in to help search for Mavromatis who is still missing at sea.

Niki Burgan is the founder of SoCal H2O Rescue Group.

Burgan’s parents and sister were killed when their small plane crashed near Carlsbad State Beach five years ago. Her father’s body was never recovered.

“It’s our goal to let the family know that every possible last resource was utilized in bringing their family member home, if that’s at all a possibility,” Burgan told 10News.

She added, “I feel like this is my way of giving back. Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of the crash and it was very emotional for me… I just wanted to isolate myself with my family, but I felt a nudge from my mom saying, ‘Get out there and see what you can do.'”

Burgan’s group is comprised of certified lifeguards and specially trained search and rescue dogs.

They left from the Chula Vista Marina at 1:30 a.m. Monday morning. They will meet up with Mexican authorities who are still searching the area.

Burgan and her dog Rummy came back empty handed on Monday but plan to go out again later this week.

“You just never know… the search is never done and until that one person comes back,” she said. “I know what the families are going through… It’s heart-wrenching.”

The fatalities were first in the 65 years that the Newport to Ensenada race has been run, race organizers said.

Rich Roberts of the Newport Ocean Sailing Association, which puts on the race, said the collision occurred just south of border near the Coronado Islands, a group of four islands about 8 miles off the Baja California coast.

The course of the Aegean crossed shipping lanes used by commercial and military ships headed to and from the ports of San Diego and Ensenada, and maritime investigators will attempt to identify the ship involved. The captain of ship hundreds of times as big as the Aegean might have been unaware of the collision.

The deaths marked the second yachting disaster this spring. On April 14 off San Francisco, five lives were lost when a yacht in a race around the Farallon Islands was disabled by a breaking wave and washed onto a rocky shore. That prompted the Coast Guard to suspend offshore sailboat racing in Northern California.

please keep a vigilant and alert watch when near large cities and shipping lanes and islands….



Transponder Info Clarifies Aegean Tragedy

May 2, 2012 – Coronado Islands, Mexico

(Click on the photo to enlarge it.)
According to Aegean’s SPOT track, she remained on the same SE course from about 10:15 p.m., April 27, until 1:30 the next morning, when she apparently hit the island. © 2012 SPOT

At least part of the mystery of how the Redondo Beach-based Hunter 376 Aegean was destroyed during last weekend’s Lexus Newport to Ensenada Race may have been solved. Aegean’s SPOT Messenger GPS track shows the boat on a constant course and speed for more than three hours — leading them directly onto the rocky shore of North Coronado Island. This almost certainly eliminates the possibility that Aegean was hit by a ship, which had been the most prevalent initial speculation.

Lt. Bill Fitzgerald of USCG Sector San Diego says that investigators “have a substantial amount of evidence of a particular scenario,” and Aegean’s running into the island was “one of the primary possibilities.” He noted that the GPS track was just one of the pieces of evidence. Fitzgerald was also quick to point out that investigators are not ready to announce a conclusion at this point, but hope to do so soon.

The rest of the mystery is why Aegean was kept on a constant course toward a solid obstruction. It’s possible that the crew was overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty exhaust. It’s possible that whoever was on watch at that late hour fell asleep. There are other possible explanations also, of course. We may never know the full story. For what it’s worth, Theo Mavromatis, who chartered the boat, is said to have been an experienced skipper, which is supported by the fact that he’d won his division in the Ensenada Race on two previous occasions.

A few people have clung to the ‘hit by a ship’ theory based on that fact that Low Speed Chase, which went onto the rocky shore of the Farallones during the huge surf of the Full Crew Farallones Race on April 14, remained intact enough to be removed from the island by helicopter, while Aegean, in much smaller four-foot swells, appears to have been broken into small pieces. It doesn’t seem curious to us, as Low Speed Chase appeared to have been washed up on a ledge, while Aegean mostly likely was repeatedly slammed against a steep and jagged shore. It was something like six hours between the time her GPS signal was lost and the first bits of her were discovered near the island by Eric Lamb of Vessel Assist. Given a sufficiently jagged shore, that’s plenty of time for a fiberglass boat to be left in little pieces.

The San Diego County medical examiner reports that Kevin Eric Rudolph, 53, of Manhattan Beach, died of blunt force injuries to his head and neck; William Reed Johnson Jr., 57, of Torrance, died of multiple blunt force injuries; and Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, FL, drowned. Theo Mavromatis, 49, is still missing.

The Aegean tragedy marks the first fatalities in the Newport to Ensenada Race, which has been held for 65 years, and at the height of popularity attracted well over 500 entries. We think it’s worth noting that most major sailing events on the West Coast — the TransPac, the Pacific Cup, the Singlehanded TransPac, and the Baja Ha-Ha have all had long histories without any fatalities. This is not to say that it can’t happen in those events, or that there was anything about the Ensenada Race that made it unusually risky, but rather that West Coast offshore racing events are generally quite safe.

– latitude / richard