Crew may not know their large ship hit sailboat

Among the safety precautions given to sailors entering the Newport Beach-to-Ensenada yacht race, the most pointed involve preparing for a night on the open ocean.

Check that your lights work. Make sure the batteries powering those lights are fully charged. Best to carry spares.

And perhaps most important: Be vigilant in watching for hazards emerging from the dark.

As U.S. Coast Guard investigators work to determine what caused the destruction of a 37-foot sailboat early Saturday off the Mexican coast, there’s a possibility that no eyewitnesses remain.

All four crew members of the Aegean were killed. And based on the level of destruction — small pieces of the boat were found spread over a wide area — it may be no one aboard the much larger ship that’s believed to have rammed the Aegean ever realized it.

“It’s possible they had no idea that they’d hit something,” said Brad Avery, director of Orange Coast College’s School of Sailing & Seamanship in Newport Beach.

“It’s every small boater’s worst nightmare,” he said.

Three bodies were recovered Saturday west of the Coronado Islands, about 15 miles south of San Diego. None was wearing a life jacket.

After scouring a 600-square-mile area Sunday with ships and aircraft, the Coast Guard suspended its search for the fourth person, skipper Theo Mavromatis, a veteran of the race. “We’ve exhausted all possibilities,” a spokesman said.

While the Coast Guard on Monday said it couldn’t definitely say the Aegean was struck by another boat, race organizers say the debris doesn’t suggest an explosion and that two sailors on other boats reported seeing a much larger vessel in the area.

Without discounting the likelihood of a collision, the Coast Guard noted that the last known position of the Aegean was close to a rocky shoreline on one of the Coronado Islands.

But the area west of the islands where the Aegean was hit also is a common path for tankers and freighters heading to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“Everybody on the water has an obligation to keep a good lookout,” said Joe Derie, a retired Coast Guard lieutenant commander who works as a marine accident investigator. “You shouldn’t ever be surprised.”

Investigators were searching for other ships that may have been nearby when the Aegean disappeared from an online tracking system about 1:30 a.m. Saturday.

Since 2004, the United Nation’s International Maritime Organization has required all vessels larger than 299 gross tons to carry transponders that track their speed and course.

Derie said that if such a vessel was in the area at the time of the accident, it wouldn’t take long for investigators to find it.

“They’ll interview whoever was on watch, the helmsman, to determine whether they heard anything,” he said. “They’d also search for physical evidence. There would be no dents, but there could be paint smears.”

The three recovered bodies have been identified as William Reed Johnson, 57, of Torrance; Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, Fla., and Kevin Rudolph, 53, of Manhattan Beach.

Johnson and Rudolph died from blunt force trauma, San Diego County’s medical examiner said late Monday, while Stewart drowned.

“I didn’t like him doing the races,” said Rudolph’s wife, Leslie. “I mean, they were out in the middle of the ocean. I always used to worry.”

It was the first fatal accident in the 65-year history of the sailing regatta.

“You have to have eyes on deck looking out all the time — that’s the bottom line,” said Chuck Iverson, commodore of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., which sponsors the 125-mile race. “Especially at night.”

Los Angeles Times staff writers Tony Perry and Lauren Williams contributed to this report.