One dead, four missing in California yacht race

SAN FRANCISCO Sun Apr 15, 2012 5:05pm EDT

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - One sailor died and four were missing after powerful waves battered a sailboat during a yacht race and tossed it into rocks around islands off San Francisco, officials said on Sunday.

A search by air and sea was underway for the sailors who were swept overboard on Saturday when the waves hit the Low Speed Chase, a 38-foot (11.5-meter) racing and cruising sailboat.

"This was an experienced crew who raced together often," said Ed Lynch, director of the San Francisco Yacht Club, where the Low Speed Chase is based. "The sailing community is tight-knit, and this is being felt around the world. This is just a terrible tragedy for everyone."

Helicopters and ships near the Farallon Islands, 45 nautical miles (83 nautical kilometers) west of the Golden Gate Bridge, were scouring the area for the sailors, said Levi Read, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman.

The California Air National Guard was providing air support with night vision and heat-seeking devices. Members of the San Francisco Yacht Club were using private watercraft to search the area.

Authorities have not released the identity of the dead sailor.

The eight-member crew of the Low Speed Chase set sail on Saturday as one of 49 yachts competing in the Full Crew Farallones, an annual race around the rugged island chain, according to San Francisco Yacht Club's Lynch.

Seas and winds were considered typical for the season, he said. The boat was in the vicinity of SE Farallon Island around 3 p.m. (1900 GMT) Saturday when a wave swept four crew members into the water, Lynch said.

The four remaining crewmembers turned the yacht around, only to be hit by another wave that dashed the boat against rocks, where it foundered, Read said.

"The boat is in bad shape, with its sails torn, up against rocks and beaten by waves," he said.

Helicopter crews arrived about a half-hour later and used litter baskets and motorized winches to rescue three sailors and recover one body, Read said.

Lynch said the three rescued sailors were "all pretty shaken up" and taken to San Francisco General Hospital. Two were treated and released late Saturday and one remained hospitalized on Sunday with a fractured leg, he said.

The prospects for surviving frigid ocean waters or holding onto the rocky shoals and cliffs of the Farallones depend on the missing sailors' physical fitness, size and clothing, Read said.

"The people who were rescued had on cold-weather gear and inflatable life vests," he said. "That's what's giving us hope."

(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Xavier Briand)

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