April 27, 2012 / 4:26 AM / 8 years ago

UPDATE 1-California sailing tragedy prompts suspension of ocean racing

* Temporary “stand-down” to allow thorough safety review

* Survivor: safety harnesses might have prevented deaths (Adds comments from Coast Guard and U.S. Sailing)

By Ronnie Cohen

FAIRFAX, Calif., April 26 (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard said on Thursday it has suspended sailboat racing in the Pacific Ocean off Northern California following a yachting accident that killed five people west of San Francisco earlier this month.

The agency said it called for the offshore racing “stand down” due to the fatal April 14 tragedy near the Farallone Islands, and another accident in the area that occurred two weeks before and injured two yacht crew members.

Laura Munoz, executive director of the Yacht Racing Association of San Francisco Bay, said the Coast Guard stopped issuing permits for ocean races pending results of a report on the Farallone Islands accident.

The association subsequently rerouted a race scheduled for Saturday out of the open water and into San Francisco Bay, she said. Plans for future ocean sailboat contests remain uncertain.

“Everyone wanted to take a pause and make sure everything that can be done has been done,” Munoz said.

Latitude 38, a sailing website, called the move unprecedented and said the orders came from Coast Guard Captain Cindy Stowe of San Francisco.

In the first of two recent accidents, a pair of crew members from an Australian yacht on a round-the-world race were injured off Northern California when a massive wave struck the ship on March 31.

“The San Francisco Bay area sailing community is one of the most vibrant, experienced and capable sailing communities in the world,” Stowe said in a statement.

“This temporary safety stand-down from offshore racing will allow the Coast Guard and the offshore racing community to further our common safety goals,” she said.

In the April 14 fatal 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 and tossing the vessel onto a rocky island.

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

Bryan Chong, one of three men who survived the accident, posted a harrowing online account this week of the incident in hopes of spurring a discussion about sailboat safety.

He said the moments he spent overboard felt like he was in “a washing machine filled with boulders,” and that his crew mates who perished, including the best man at his wedding, might have been saved had they worn safety harnesses.

San Francisco police and the district attorney investigated the tragedy and found no criminal negligence.

Munoz said the Coast Guard informed her on Wednesday night it had suspended ocean racing pending a U.S. Sailing Association report on the matter. Munoz said she hoped the report would be completed within a month.

“We’ll see what U.S. Sailing has to say, and then hopefully we can get back to it,” Munoz said.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for everybody to take a breath and see what can be done. We want to be sure our races are as safe as possible.”

U.S. Sailing Association President Gary Jobson said in a statement his organization, the national governing body for the sport, looks forward to working with the Coast Guard to “understand exactly what happened” during the race around the Farallone Islands. (Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Todd Eastham)

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