Search for California sailboat halted; possible hoax probed

SAN FRANCISCO Tue Feb 26, 2013 2:57pm EST

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard halted its search off northern California on Tuesday for a crippled sailboat and four people reported to have abandoned the vessel, and it said investigators were also looking into whether the distress call received two days ago was a hoax.

The search operation, suspended as of 9:30 a.m. local time, had covered an area the size of West Virginia, but had found no signs of the boat or of two adults and two children who were presumed missing since Sunday, Coast Guard spokesman Thomas McKenzie said.

The Coast Guard began scanning the frigid, choppy coastal waters from Half Moon Bay south to Monterey with search vessels and aircraft after receiving a radio message on Sunday afternoon saying a 29-foot sailboat was disabled and taking on water about 65 miles off Point Pillar.

A little more than an hour after the initial distress call, a man identifying himself as the vessel's operator radioed that the four people aboard were abandoning the craft and planned to use a makeshift life raft to stay afloat. The Coast Guard then lost communications with the caller, officials said.

The Coast Guard has so far been unable to identify those said to be aboard the vessel, and no one has been reported missing, but McKenzie said for now the agency was continuing to treat the distress call seriously while also investigating the possibility of a hoax.

"We are investigating," he said. "We're not making that determination at this time."

(Reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)

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