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Sailors may have crashed into cliffs

Already shaken by the deaths of five sailors in a race to San Francisco’s Farallon Islands, California’s sailing community suffered another blow and yet more agonizing self-examination two weeks later as all four crewmembers on the Hunter 376 Aegean perished in a Newport-to-Ensenada Race accident that left the boat in pieces.

If the Spot Google track is correct, it appears the four sailors who died struck North Coronado Island.

If the Spot Google track that followed the raceboat’s progress for the first 85 miles of the 124-mile course is correct, Theo Mavromatis’ Aegean, home-ported in Redondo Beach, stopped dead in the water at the foot of a rock cliff on North Coronado Island at 1:36 a.m. April 28. “That area is totally unforgiving,” says Troy Sears, a lifelong San Diego sailor and partner with Dennis Conner in Next Level Sailing, which runs charters on retired America’s Cup yachts. “I go by the island all the time. Yesterday I was within 30 feet of that spot. There is no shoreline there.” The water is deep — 40 to 60 feet — and Aegean would have rammed full-speed into the sheer rock cliff, he says.

About nine hours later, Vessel Assist Capt. Eric Lamb was patrolling the course for the race committee when he found a debris field a half to three-quarters of a mile off the island. “The debris field was at least two miles across,” he says. “I’ve never seen a boat broken up quite like that one. They were very, very small pieces, the majority of them smaller than a Frisbee.”

He and his mate found one 5-by-3-foot piece of hull with a boot stripe on it and the name, Aegean. Search teams recovered the bodies of William Reed Johnson, 57, of Torrance, Calif.; Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, Fla., and Kevin Rudolph, 53, of Manhattan Beach, Calif. None was wearing a lifejacket. Two of them died from blunt-force trauma; a third drowned. Two anglers found Mavromatis, 49, a veteran of seven Newport-Ensenadas and winner of two, in 2009 and 2011, in the water May 6 near the islands. He, too, died of multiple blunt-force injuries, according to the San Diego County medical examiner’s office.

The losses came hard on the heels of the deaths of five sailors in the Full Crew Farallones Race off San Francisco two weeks earlier. With nine sailors dead before the start of summer sailing, the Coast Guard called on US Sailing to conduct inquiries into both races and make safety recommendations.

Aegean was so thoroughly pulverized it was first thought it had been run over by a merchant ship. The waters off North Coronado, a 500-foot-high volcanic island 15 miles south of San Diego Bay and eight miles off Mexico’s Baja California, serve as an approach for ships entering and leaving San Diego Harbor.

With no survivors, the cause of the boat’s utter destruction posed a mystery for both investigators and amateur sleuths, who speculated endlessly on Aegean’s demise. Before the Spot track surfaced, Coast Guard Petty Officer Henry Dunphy says the leading theory of what happened was a collision with a ship, but he also couldn’t rule out a run-in with a whale. He says an explosion was unlikely, as was a collision with a U.S. Navy ship since the debris was in Mexican waters. However, after discovery of the GPS track, the Coast Guard shifted gears, saying there was no leading theory anymore. “We’re going through the debris,” says Petty Officer Allison Conroy. “That’s a big part of what we’re doing. We’re talking with other people, other vessels that were in the area.” She says the investigation could take weeks to complete.

Calculations from the Spot track suggest that around 10 p.m. April 27 Aegean started to motor, as cruising boats are permitted to do between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. under the race rules so long as they take a penalty. The wind had died to 1 to 1-1/2 knots, yet Aegean maintained a steady speed of 7 or so knots for the next 3-1/2 hours on a heading directly for North Coronado Island. Sears theorizes that running into that wall of rock at 8 knots, followed by six hours of pounding against the cliff in the surge at high tide in 4- to 6-foot swells could easily have pulverized Aegean.

He also suggests that whatever happened, fatigue could have been a factor in what might have been a tragic error in navigation and/or watch-keeping. Aegean’s crew would have had to take the boat from Redondo Beach to Newport Beach to make the overnight race’s 11 a.m. Friday start. By the time Aegean’s crew reached North Coronado 85 miles distant, they had been racing 14-1/2 hours. “I do a lot of trips up and down the coastline,” says Sears. “Four people operating a boat around-the-clock is not a lot of people.” One other crewman had been scheduled to race, but he cancelled at the last minute when his mother fell ill.

Sears says the wind was very light that night, and the one-third to one-half moon already had set, so it was very dark. And North Coronado is a dark target anyway. Plus, it’s “very, very easy” to doze off, he says. “If you’re operating the boat 24 hours a day, have a watch plan, have enough people, be rested.”

Also, Aegean’s course and constant speed suggest it might have been on autopilot. “If you take [Aegean’s] plot [to Coronado] and put it on the chart and extend it down, you get a course that takes you to all the way to Ensenada,” Sears says.

Had Aegean been on autopilot, there are a couple of factors that could have contributed to a collision with the island, says Greg Moore, a 35-year veteran of the marine electronics industry and owner of San Diego Boat Electric. One of the crewmembers could have left a ferrous steel tool, toolbox or tackle box near the compass, causing a magnetic deviation and an error in course, he says. Two other possibilities are that the crew could have plotted a course to a waypoint near Ensenada on the plotter and inadvertently laid that course over the top of North Coronado Island, or — with the autopilot doing all the work — the watch could have been lulled into complacency, he says. “You go down and make a sandwich or call someone on your cell phone or do some texting,” he says. “It’s like driving and texting.” The focus shifts from driving the boat to talking on the phone.

Still, not everyone is convinced a collision with the island explains Aegean’s near- total destruction. ”We’ve seen any number of boats hit the north island,” says Harold O’Neil, a San Diego marine electronics specialist and 40-year veteran of the marine industry. “It happens every three or four years. The boat gets a great big hole in it and sinks right there at the island, and the people jump off,” he says. “I don’t think it ran into the island. That’s my personal opinion.”

Whatever happened to Aegean (here at the race start), the Hunter 376 was left in pieces 'smaller than a Frisbee.'

Bruce Kessler, a longtime San Diego angler and powerboat cruiser, agrees. “I’ve seen North Island hit many times by boats — some going as fast as 18 knots,” he says. “I’ve never seen one break up like that.” He suspects Aegean collided with a ship. With a shorthanded watch and its engine masking the sound of an approaching vessel, the sailboat could have been run over from astern. “You have to look 360 degrees,” Kessler says. “You don’t realize how fast these ships are. If you’re not looking behind you, this can happen.” A sailboat is a tiny target on a ship’s radar and can be easily missed, especially if there are dozens of them racing at night, he says.

Kessler agrees with Sears on this: “It all comes down to one thing. Whether [Aegean] ran into the island or collided with a ship, it was a mistake of seamanship,” he says. “Somebody was not alert. Someone was not paying attention. What else could it have been?”

A report on the Sailing Anarchy website says an expert diver went down at the site where Aegean is presumed to have hit North Coronado, in 40 to 60 feet of water. He found no evidence of the boat, mast or engine.
The mystery remained unsolved.

See related articles:

- Safety rules could change in wake of race accident

- He knows what seas are like in the islands

- US Sailing panels examine the accidents

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.