Bay Area yachting community reeling from deadly racing accident

SAN FRANCISCO — The winds gusted above 25 knots and the swells topped 12 feet. In short, sailors participating in this year’s race around the craggy Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of the Golden Gate, faced typically grueling conditions. Then something went terribly wrong.

A rogue wave pummeled the 38-foot Low Speed Chase as it rounded the islands Saturday, knocking five crew members overboard. As the captain sought to rescue them from the 50-degree water, the boat capsized and was hurled onto the rocks.

The body of Marc Kasanin, 46, a lifelong sailor and artist from Belvedere, Calif., was recovered soon after the accident. Four other sailors are missing and presumed dead. Three survivors, including the yacht’s captain, were rescued by the Coast Guard, which has suspended search operations.

On Monday, the tight-knit racing community in the San Francisco Bay Area, which will host sailing’s preeminent America’s Cup next year, was reeling with grief.

“We are all still sort of scrambling to even accept that this has happened,” said Laura Munoz, executive director of the Yacht Racing Assn. of San Francisco Bay. “It’s a terrible, terrible accident. I think it’s going to resonate with people for a long time.”

Arguably most devastated is the 143-year-old San Francisco Yacht Club in Belvedere, which began hosting the Farallones race in 1907.

Kasanin grew up on the Marin County town’s Corinthian Island, and his whimsical acrylic and oil paintings depict sailboats floating peacefully in its bucolic cove.

The Low Speed Chase had been berthed at the San Francisco Yacht Club. Also among its members was the missing Jordan Fromm, 25, of Kentfield, Calif., whose parents have been an active part of the club for years.

“Jordan is a young kid getting ready to start his life,” General Manager Stephen DePetro said Monday. “That’s the heartbreak of heartbreaks right there.”

The other missing sailors are Alexis Busch, 26, of Larkspur, Calif., the daughter of former San Francisco Giants executive Corey Busch and Major League Baseball’s first bat girl (the Giants on Monday announced plans to honor her with a moment of silence); Alan Cahill, an Irish-born master boat craftsman in his 30s from Tiburon, Calif., whom a friend described to the San Francisco Chronicle as “full of life and energy”; and Elmer Morrissey of Ireland, also in his 30s.

Rescued with captain James Bradford, 41, of Chicago were Nick Vos of Sonoma, Calif., and Bryan Chong of Tiburon. The trio were among more than 400 attendees at a San Francisco Yacht Club vigil Sunday night.

“I have never seen so many tears and hugs,” DePetro said.

The Farallones race is one of three held every year that circumnavigate the barren marine sanctuary.

“They’re very popular races. And part of the reason they’re popular is they can be challenging — but not beyond what people normally can handle,” Munoz said.

On Saturday, 52 vessels started out the race under clear skies, Munoz said.

As regular swells measured about 12 feet, “every 10 minutes or so a much bigger wave would come through,” said Bill Helvestine, who was racing his 50-foot craft — the Deception — in the Farallones contest for the fourth straight year.

As the yachts neared the island, Helvestine said, surf coming off the rocks mixed with the incoming swells, creating irregular “large, deeply troughed waves.”

His crew of 11 was concerned enough about conditions, he said, that they stayed farther from shore than normal as they rounded the islands. And all of them clipped in to safety tethers — a precaution he called “discretionary” in a coastal race.

The first sign of trouble for the Low Speed Chase came when a wave submerged the craft enough to trigger a signaling device, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Caleb Critchfield said. A mayday call to the Coast Guard’s San Francisco sector came in shortly after.

Three helicopters, a Coast Guard cutter and a 47-foot lifeboat responded to the scene. Kasanin’s body was found quickly, as were the three survivors, who were clinging to the rocks. They were wearing life vests.

A C-130 plane joined the effort. But by Sunday evening, after covering an area of about 5,000 square miles, Coast Guard officials called off the search.

“The decision to suspend a search-and-rescue case like this is never an easy one to make,” said Capt. Cynthia Stowe. “The Coast Guard extends our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the lost crewmen and the deceased.”

Helvestine conceded that accidents happen in a risky sport such as ocean yacht racing. But still, he said, the “shockingly high casualty number” leaves a numbing sadness.

DePetro had seen Kasanin on Thursday, when the two met over a glass of wine to talk about the club’s kitchen remodel. Kasanin had been pushing for bar popcorn. DePetro nixed it, saying it would be too messy. But at Sunday’s vigil, friends brought some in Kasanin’s honor.

DePetro reached for the wake book and scribbled a farewell to his friend: “You finally won on the popcorn.”