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Safety rules could change in wake of race accident

As a stunned San Francisco sailing community mourned the loss of five of its own, fact-finding continued into how and why the 38-footer Low Speed Chase rolled in breaking seas while rounding Southeast Farallon Island for the 28-mile return to San Francisco’s bayside city front — start and finish of the Full Crew Farallones Race.

Five of the eight sailors aboard Low Speed Chase died after the Sydney 38 rolled in breaking surf during the Full Crew Farallones Race.

One of the three survivors, Bryan Chong, of Tiburon, Calif., writes in a nearly 4,000-word letter to a “devastated” sailing community that Low Speed Chase was well outside the breaker zone off Maintop, an islet just northwest of Southeast Farallon, when a “massive” wave broke over the boat and rolled it. “I’ve seen large waves before, but this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen outside of big-wave surf videos,” Chong writes in the letter, which was posted on the Latitude 38, Sailing Anarchy, Seahorse and Scuttlebutt websites and picked up by Reuters and the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard had suspended offshore racing in the San Francisco area pending the completion of a US Sailing inquiry into the April 14 accident. In announcing the suspension, the Coast Guard cited the deaths in the 105-year-old race — San Francisco’s oldest offshore event — and the airlift two weeks earlier of two injured British sailors from a 70-foot round-the-world raceboat that was pummeled by a “monster wave” 400 miles off California. “The San Francisco Bay area sailing community is one of the most vibrant, experienced and capable sailing communities in the world,” Capt. Cynthia Stowe, Coast Guard captain of the Port of San Francisco, said in a statement. “This temporary safety stand-down from offshore racing will allow the Coast Guard and the offshore racing community to further our common safety goals.”

The Coast Guard was working with San Francisco’s Offshore Yacht Racing Association to revise the courses of the April 28 Duxship Race and the May 12 Singlehanded Sailing Society Farallones Race to keep them in the bay and inside a line drawn between Bonita Point and Land’s End, three miles outside Golden Gate Bridge.

The Coast Guard and the San Francisco Yacht Club, which manages the Full Crew Farallones Race for the Offshore Yacht Racing Association, are anxious for US Sailing to weigh in on the Farallones losses, says US Sailing president Gary Jobson. “We think the sailing community in San Francisco will welcome an independent look,” he says. Jobson says the inquiry board will consist mainly of sailors from outside the Bay Area, with some local representation.

‘A washing machine’

In his letter, Chong says all of Low Speed Chase’s crewmembers were wearing life jackets and that there were eight tethers aboard, but no one was clipped on to the boat’s two jacklines. When an enormous wave and then another right after it tore into the boat, seven of the eight sailors were thrown into the water and washed into a zone Chong describes as a “washing machine filled with boulders.”

Chong says he should have been clipped on to a jackline “at every possible opportunity” during the race so he could have stayed with Low Speed Chase and that he would have been better off being with the boat — inside or outside it — after it rolled, rather than being pummeled among boulders in the relentless breakers. He described the 15 minutes in the water as the “scariest of my life.”

“Bryan at one point was ready to give up, but [survivor] Nick [Vos] kept yelling to him to keep swimming,” says Ed Lynch, a director and spokesman for the San Francisco Yacht Club.

Low Speed Chase, an Australian-built Sydney 38, was about to clear Maintop — all crewmembers on deck, ready to set the spinnaker — when the wave crested and broke, Lynch says. “There was nothing they could do to avoid it.”

Lynch says wind and seas had been building through the afternoon and seemed to substantially intensify about 3 p.m., when the Coast Guard received an EPIRB signal from Low Speed Chase and a mayday call from another entry, Jim Quanci’s Cal 40 Green Buffalo, whose crew saw the boat up on the rocks on Southeast Farallon but couldn’t get through the breakers to help. Seas now were running 14 to 18 feet off the islands and winds were upward of 26 knots, Lynch says.

Alan Cahill, of Tiburon, a professional skipper and native of Ireland long experienced in Bay Area racing, including offshore, was at the helm. Chong was trimming the main. The rest of the crew were on the rail when the first wave hit, Chong says. Cahill had just enough time to steer into the “crashing wall of water” at 9 to 10 knots. As the boat climbed the wave, “it breaks directly on us,” writes Chong. “The last thing I see is the boat tipping toward vertical with a band of water still above it. A single thought races through my head: This is going to be bad.”

Chong says the boat surfed backward, rotated 90 degrees and rolled, snapping the mast and shredding the sails. He and Vos, of Sonoma, were the only ones still aboard. They tried to pull the others back in, but there wasn’t time. A second wave crashed over Low Speed Chase, this time throwing Chong into the water. Vos hung on aboard the boat, riding it through the breakers onto the rocks, where he was able to climb off onto the island. Fighting through the breakers, Chong made his way to shore. Boat owner James Bradford, of Chicago, was deposited on rocks off cliffs and was unable to reach shore. “He was holding on to the rocks,” Lynch says.

A helicopter removed Low Speed Chase from the island nine days after the accident.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew lifted Chong and Vos from the island. A National Guard helicopter crew pulled Bradford off the rocks and recovered the body of Marc Kasanin, of Belvedere, Calif., from the water. Twelve days later, the Coast Guard recovered the body of Jordan Fromm, of Kentfield, Calif., after a biologist working at Southeast Farallon spotted the body in the water. Three others — Alexis Busch, of Larkspur, Calif.; helmsman Cahill; and Elmer Morrissey, of Ireland — remained missing after a 5,000-square-mile air and sea search.

Chong says the mindset aboard Low Speed Chase as the crew rounded Southeast Farallon was “definitely not aggressive” since they already had lost an hour because of a bad start and still air that forced them to anchor in the bay for a time. He says they rounded the island just inside the route the Santa Cruz 50 Deception took an hour earlier in lighter conditions. The boat was at least 10 boat lengths — about 128 yards — outside the breaker zone off Maintop. “Our distance looks safe and no one on the boat comments,” Chong writes.

Deaths first in history of race

The losses are the first in the 105-year history of the Full Crew Farallones Race, even though it is almost always a very challenging race. Lynch says this year’s conditions weren’t unusual for the spring contest, but they were rough enough that just 31 of 50 boats that started the race finished. In 1982, four racers died in a gale in the Double-Handed Farallones Race.

A national wildlife refuge with populations of seabirds, seals, whales and great white sharks, the Farallones are “very rugged, as much of the California coastline is,” Lynch says. Large swells rolling across the Pacific to California well up higher and higher as they truck across the continental shelf, six miles west of Southeast Farallon, and break over the shoals extending out from the steep, rocky outcroppings — the Farallon Islands. It was somewhere along the edge of those shoals that Low Speed Chase rolled. “When the swells hit that shelf they can grow into enormous waves and come up out of nowhere very, very quickly,” Lynch says.

A San Francisco police investigation concluded there was no criminal negligence in the tragedy, but Lynch says inquiries from the sailing side — US Sailing — could bring safety recommendations. One thought that seemed to be gaining traction as the focus shifted from the losses to possible causes: establishing GPS waypoints off the Farallones and requiring raceboats to round the islands outside those waypoints so crews give the treacherous breakers and lee shore a wide berth.

In his letter, Chong calls for a “broader commitment to safety,” starting with himself “taking personal responsibility for my own safety” and tethering whenever possible, not just at night or when conditions are “really wild.”

Jobson says US Sailing’s job now will be to interview survivors to find out exactly what happened; review the race regulations, sailing instructions and equipment requirements; determine the extent to which the boat and crew were in compliance with them; and “make a determination of what should be done in the future.”

Ballard Diving & Salvage, of Seattle, lifted the 15,000-pound Low Speed Chase off Southeast Farallon with a helicopter April 23 and brought it to an airport at Half Moon Bay about 28 miles away, according to press reports.

The accident has left hardly a corner of the global sailing community untouched. “We’ve seen an outpouring of condolences from around the world,” Lynch says. “This has been a global event. It’s not just about our club,” although two of those who died — Kasanin and Fromm — “were born into our yacht club. It’s about our community. It’s about the sailing community, from New Zealand to Ireland.”
The grief for those lost and for their families runs deep and wide, he says.

See related articles:

- He knows what seas are like at the islands

- Sailors may have crashed into cliffs

- US Sailing panels examine the accidents

This article originally appeared inthe July 2012 issue.