A yacht racing on the coast along the California-Mexico border apparently collided at night with a much larger vessel, leaving three crew members dead and one missing, a sailing organization said Sunday.
It was the state's second ocean racing tragedy this month.
The Newport Ocean Sailing Association — organizer of the 125-mile Newport, Calif. to Ensenada, Mexico yacht race — said the apparent collision involving the 37-foot Aegean occurred late Friday or early Saturday several miles off the coast near the ocean border of the two countries.
Eric Lamb, sailor who pulled two dead bodies from the coastal waters, says he found debris smashed in so many pieces that it looked like the vessel had gone through a blender.
Both bodies were covered with scrapes and bruises and one had severe head trauma, according to Lamb.
Lamb was working safety patrol Saturday morning when he came across the debris roughly nine hours after the crash occurred. He called the Coast Guard for help.
Two race participants who were in the area at the time of the crash tell The Associated Press that they saw a tanker or heard warnings on their radios.
"It appeared the damage was not inflicted by an explosion but by a collision with a ship much larger than the 37-foot vessel," association spokesman Rich Roberts said in a news release early Sunday.
Race officials believe there are few other possibilities for what caused the accident, Roberts later told The Associated Press, speaking by phone from Ensenada, Mexico.
He said details were still scarce but it was possible that if the smaller boat was bobbing around in light wind, the crew might not have been able to get out of the way of a larger ship, perhaps a freighter.
The race goes through shipping lanes and it's possible for a large ship to hit a sailboat and not even know it, especially at night, he said.
Roberts said a race tracking system indicated that the boat disappeared about 1:30 a.m. Saturday.
A Coast Guard search turned up the boat's wreckage, including the rear transom with the boat's name on it, the association release said.
Three crew members of the sailboat were found dead and a search was under way early Sunday for a fourth. Coast Guard boats and two aircraft as well as Mexican navy and civilian vessels were involved.
It wasn't immediately clear how many people were aboard the Aegean, but the Newport Beach Patch website posted a photo that shows the crew at the start of the race Friday. Four men in royal blue T-shits are on the deck as the boat cuts through calm waters. One man is waving and another appears to be smiling.
Other yachts near the Coronado Islands in Mexico reported seeing debris Saturday morning. Searchers in the afternoon found the bodies and debris from the Aegean, whose home port is Redondo Beach, Coast Guard Petty Officer Henry Dunphy said
Two of the dead were recovered by a civilian boat, while the third was found by a Coast Guard helicopter.
The Coast Guard said earlier that it hadn't determined what happened to the sailboat.
Dunphy said conditions were fine for sailing, with good visibility and moderate ocean swells of 6-to-8 feet.
A total of 210 boats were registered in the 65th annual yacht race, according to the Newport Ocean Sailing Association's website. The race started off Newport Beach Friday and many boats finished in Ensenada Saturday, with the last ones due in Sunday.
The association's commodore, reached by phone in Ensenada, told the AP that he didn't know the members of the Aegean or how many people were aboard.
"This has never happened in the entire 65 years of the race that I'm aware of," Chuck Iverson said. "We're all shocked by this whole event."
The names of the dead were not released pending notification of next of kin.
The Coronado Islands are four small, largely uninhabited islands about 15 miles south of San Diego.
The deaths come two weeks after five sailors died in the waters off Northern California when their 38-foot yacht was hit by powerful waves, smashed into rocks and capsized during a race.
Three sailors survived the wreck and the body of another was quickly recovered. Four remained missing until one body was recovered last Thursday.
The deadly accident near the Farallon Islands, about 27 miles west of San Francisco, prompted the Coast Guard to temporarily stop races in ocean waters outside San Francisco Bay.
The Coast Guard said the suspension will allow it and the offshore racing community to study the accident and race procedures to determine whether changes are needed to improve safety. U.S. Sailing, the governing body of yacht racing, is leading the safety review, which is expected to be completed within the next month.
The Aegean is owned by Marina Sailing, a Southern California sailing club that rents the sailboat for $325 per day. An call to the club was not immediately returned Saturday night.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.