Yacht may have struck rocks

A GPS device from the doomed racing boat Aegean struck a jagged island, an online tracking system shows.

The sailing community was buzzing with the news Tuesday, as racers emailed a link to Spot, a personal satellite tracking company, and speculated anew about the original theory of the accident. Up to now, many thought that the 37-foot Aegean was struck by a larger commercial vessel, such as a tanker or freighter.

The accident claimed four sailors' lives Saturday during the annual Newport-to-Ensenada race. One body has not yet been recovered.

Spot hosts webpages at http://www.findmespot.com where friends and family members of sailors can check in on a boat's progress.

The track for the vessel identified as the Aegean shows the GPS device aground on the north end of North Coronado Island at 1:36 a.m. — the time that race organizers said the accident occurred. The Coronado Islands are about 15 miles south of San Diego Bay.

It is unclear how the Spot tracking map first surfaced and if race organizers were aware of it when they promulgated the first accident theory.

It also remained unclear Tuesday whether the device was aboard the Aegean and indicates a collision, or whether it floated there after something else sunk the ship.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Sean Groark said that investigators have been aware of the tracking map, after either one of the racer's family members or the race organizers provided the information.

But he could not attest to the accuracy of the GPS-based tracking service because it is commercially operated.

"The Coast Guard is aware of it, and we take that information into account," Groark said. "We investigate all possibilities and endeavor to not jump to conclusions."

Striking the island at night is a plausible theory, said Brad Avery, director of the Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship.

Cruising boats are permitted to sail on autopilot in the Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race, and the Aegean was in the cruising class.

"We had a villain for a long while," Avery said, "and now you just have human error by the crew, if that is what occurred."

Ensenada racer Scot Tempesta posted a link to the tracking system on his widely read website Sailing Anarchy on Tuesday, igniting the speculation.

Other sailors who had tracked their progress on Spot posted the link on his site's discussion boards, he said. Tempesta sailed past the islands Friday night and the swell was running about 4 feet — enough to potentially break a boat up on the rocks, he said.

"It is a nasty piece of little ocean there," Tempesta said. "It's deceptive just how rough it can be there."

To find out if the boat indeed struck the rocks, divers would head out to the island and search for the boat's keel or engine, Avery said.

Those two pieces are the heaviest on a boat and would likely fall directly to the bottom where the vessel was demolished.

But such a salvage or diving operation would typically be conducted by a private party, not at the taxpayers' expense, according Groark.

"It doesn't change the way we search," he said, adding that Coast Guard helicopters flew over that part of the island and spotted nothing on the rocky land.

"They're pretty rocky and jagged," he said. "There's no beach; it's all rock."

Rich Roberts, spokesman for the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., the race's organizing body, called the news "really revealing" when presented with it Tuesday.


This nails it," he said, adding that "boats have hit rocks before and were never totally demolished like this."


Twitter: @mreicher

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