A U.S. Coast Guard investigator confirmed Sunday that three sailors who were killed during an apparent collision during the Newport-to-Ensenada Yacht Race were not wearing floatation vests.
"None were wearing life jackets," Bill Fitzgerald, the Coast Guard's lead investigator in the case, said in a news release issued by race organizers.
A fourth sailor aboard the 37-foot vessel Aegean, which appears to have been involved in a crash with a much larger vessel, remains missing.
The Aegean was one of 210 boats entered in the 125-mile race from Newport Beach, Calif., to the Mexican port of Ensenada.
The vessel disappeared from an online race tracking system at about 1:30 a.m. Saturday. A daylong U.S. Coast Guard search turned up scattered wreckage near the Coronado Islands, just south of U.S. waters and about eight miles offshore.
Coast Guard crews recovered three bodies. Two were identified as Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, Fla., and William Reed Johnson Jr., 57, of Torrance, Calif. The identity of the third recovered body was not released pending notification of next of kin.
Theo Mavromatis, owner and skipper of Aegean, was said to be aboard.
Exactly what happened remains unclear but a collision seems the most plausible explanation. Large ships ply the same waters as sailboats participating in the annual race to Ensenada.
"We haven't discounted that possibility," Fitzgerald said. "We're still tracking down any vessel that may have been in their area."
It's unknown whether floatation vests might have helped. Wreckage was mostly small pieces strewn over a three-mile area. Winds were light and swells were running 3-6 feet.
The Newport-to-Ensenada race had until Saturday enjoyed a sterling safety record. These are the first fatalities in the 65-year history of a storied competition that used to attract 500-plus entrants per year.
Mavromatis is president and chief executive of Aegean Consulting Inc., in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The company specializes in telecommunications and aerospace industries.
Ray Pollock of Marina Sailing, which rented Aegean when Mavromatis was not using the vessel, told Redondo Beach Patch that Mavromatis was participating in the race for the seventh time. He won his class in 2011 and 2009.
The vessel had a new engine and an experienced crew. "I’d probably rule out operator error,” Pollock said.
-- Image showing Aegean and its crew at the start of the Newport-to-Ensenada Yacht Race is courtesy of Susan Hoffman / Newportbeach.patch.com