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Yacht debris, bodies found off U.S.-Mexico coast

ENSENADA, Mexico — A 37-foot racing yacht was reduced to debris that looked "like it had gone through a blender," a searcher said Sunday after the boat apparently collided with a larger vessel, killing three sailors and leaving a fourth missing.

The U.S. Coast Guard, the Mexican navy and civilian vessels scoured the waters off the shore of both countries for the missing sailor from the Aegean, which was taking part in a 124-mile race from Newport Beach, Calif., to Ensenada, Mexico. The sailboat, carrying a crew of four, was reported missing Saturday. The race began Friday.

Two of the dead were identified as Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, and William Reed Johnson Jr., 57, of Torrance, Calif. The San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office was withholding the name of the third sailor pending notification of relatives.

It was California's second deadly accident this month involving an ocean race. On April 14, five sailors died in the waters off Northern California when their 38-foot yacht was hit by powerful waves, smashed into rocks and capsized.

In the accident over the weekend, 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 Coast Guard said conditions were fine for sailing, with good visibility and moderate ocean swells of 6 to 8 feet.

If the smaller boat was bobbing around in light wind, the crew might not have been able to get out of the way of a larger ship, perhaps a freighter, said Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the Newport Ocean Sailing Association, the race organizer.

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, Roberts said. A race tracking system indicated the Aegean disappeared about 1:30 a.m. PDT Saturday, he added.

Eric Lamb was the first to find debris of the boat — most no larger than 6 inches — scattered over about two square miles Saturday as he worked safety patrol on the race.

"We pulled a lot of boats off the rocks over the years and boats that hit the rocks, they don't look like that. This was almost like it had gone through a blender," said Lamb, 62.

Yacht debris, bodies found off U.S.-Mexico coast 04/29/12 [Last modified: Sunday, April 29, 2012 10:20pm]
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