California yacht racing suspension set to end later in month

Tue May 1, 2012 9:46pm EDT

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(Reuters) - A suspension of open water yacht racing in the Pacific Ocean off the San Francisco coast, enacted after five sailors died in a wreck last month, could end before a planned May 25 race, a U.S. Coast Guard official said on Tuesday.

The Coast Guard declared a temporary "stand down" last week following the fatal wreck near the Farallone Islands, and just two days before four more sailors died after setting off on a race from Southern California for Mexico.

Sailing experts call the two tragedies unusual for having involved so many deaths so close together. Typically, about 15 people die a year in the United States in accidents involving motorized sailboats, said Chuck Hawley, chairman of a safety-at-sea committee of U.S. Sailing.

The suspension of offshore racing near the San Francisco Bay has affected two permitted, offshore races, but it could end in time for a May 25 Spinnaker Cup race from San Francisco to Monterey, Bay Area-based Coast Guard Captain Cindy Stowe said.

In the April 14 accident, a series of powerful waves pummeled the 38-foot (11.6-meter) yacht Low Speed Chase during the Full Crew Farallones Race, sweeping crew members overboard in shark-infested waters and tossing the vessel onto a rocky island.

The Coast Guard recovered the body of two crewmen, but two other men and a woman from the boat were lost at sea.

Officials with U.S. Sailing, the national governing body for the sport, said on Tuesday it had created a panel to examine the crash, which Stowe welcomed as an opportunity for introspection by the sailing community.

"The significant loss of life prompted me to call for a temporary safety stand down, and I want to stress this is a temporary situation," Stowe told reporters in a conference call.

"That period of time provides about a month period for us to reflect on the safety of the event that took place, as we look forward to the future races this summer," she said.

Bryan Chong, one of the three survivors from the Low Speed Chase, has suggested his five crewmates who died might have been saved had they worn safety harnesses.

"It's obvious to me now that I should have been clipped into the boat at every possible opportunity," Chong wrote in a post on a sailing website.

Gary Jobson, the president of U.S. Sailing, said he expected his organization's panel examining the accident will look into the importance of tethers. He said U.S. Sailing was also working on a panel to examine Saturday's wreck near southern California.

In that wreck, Coast Guard investigators are looking into whether the yacht involved struck a land mass or was hit by another ship. Debris from the sailboat was found near the Coronado Islands in Mexican waters. The yacht, called the Aegean, was part of a race from Southern California to Mexico's Baja California.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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