Sailors reflect after Aegean's collision

Sailors reflected on their sport's ever-present dangers as they returned from Ensenada on Monday, two days after fellow competitors perished in an apparent collision.

The tragedy reminded them to sail with experienced crew members and craft a careful night watch plan, local racers and experts say. The three confirmed deaths were the first in the 65-year history of the Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race.

A fourth crew member of the Aegean, the doomed 37-foot sloop from Long Beach, is still missing and presumed dead.

"Viewing the small bits of wreckage brought ashore and realizing that four lives were lost was certainly sobering," said David Lee, who has raced in the regatta more than 35 times.

This weekend, Lee sailed aboard the Amante, a 48-foot sloop from the Lido Isle Yacht Club whose crew members have raced to Ensenada over multiple generations. They were listening to Channel 16, the radio distress frequency, but heard nothing early Saturday morning when the accident happened, Lee said.

The Amante was sailing about 20 miles offshore of the Coronado Islands at the time, while the Aegean was closer to the islands when it was lost. Shipping and cruise traffic heading to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are common in the area.

Coast Guard investigators have not yet determined the official cause of the Aegean's destruction, but race organizers said it was apparently struck by a large commercial ship.

Chris Hillseth saw two cruise ships and two tankers while aboard his boat, the French Kiss, a 45-foot sloop. This was his seventh year in the race. He also saw the Aegean's debris when he arrived in Ensenada.

"We realize we're playing on a freeway, in the shipping lanes," Hillseth said. "It's demoralizing to hear about an accident like this."

Hillseth said as soon as his wife heard of the collision, she began researching safety equipment and has already emailed him three pieces of advanced technology that she's demanding he buy.

Hillseth uses radar and requires his crew members to wear life jackets during night watch, which is manned by at least three people at a time.

Ensenada entrants are required to bring personal flotation devices for all crew members, but they don't have to be worn. That is typical in near-shore ocean races. The three bodies recovered were not wearing life jackets.

Of the three recovered bodies, one drowned and two died from blunt-force trauma, the San Diego County medical examiner said late Monday.

"I don't know that any other safety requirements could have made any changes," said Chuck Iverson, commodore of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn. (NOSA), sponsor of the 125-mile race. "We weren't on the boat, so we don't know what sort of watch system they have."

Sailors typically have a watch plan outlining when crew members are responsible for spotting obstacles and other vessels. They rotate to ensure alertness. While some boats the size of the Aegean have radar, it is unclear if it had such instruments.

What to look for on a watch and how to react are complex propositions, said Brad Avery, a past Ensenada racer and director of Orange Coast College's School of Sailing and Seamanship.

"It's not something you can get out of a book," Avery said. "It's just time on the boat, at night."

With a reputation for fun and being a relatively short distance, the Newport to Ensenada race attracts all sorts of crew members, including novices.

"It's one of those races you can take your neighbor on, for the first time," Avery said. "But you have to balance it with experienced people."

While the background of the Aegean's crew is still emerging, its skipper reportedly won his class of similarly sized boats in 2009 and again in 2011.

Avery said that crew selection is important because sometimes the skipper has to sleep or take a break: "Do they have skill sets that approach yours?"

Iverson said U.S. Sailing, the sport's governing body, is conducting an investigation and will make any safety recommendations when it is complete. After a spate of accidents in yacht races worldwide, organizers recently have become more stringent with requirements.

NOSA holds seminars for skippers before the race, and Iverson said that he plans to emphasize night watches in the future.

"It's just a rare thing, because when you think how many hundreds of boats have gone through these waters and nothing has happened," Avery said. "It's everybody's worst nightmare."

Twitter: @mreicher

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