April 30, 2012

Search for Missing Sailor Suspended

The crew of the Hunter 376 Aegean at Friday’s start to the Newport to Ensenada Race.

© Susan Hoffman

The Coast Guard suspended their search for Theo Mavromatis, 49, yesterday afternoon after a 600-square mile grid search by the Coast Guard, the Mexican Navy and civilian volunteers found nothing but debris from the Hunter 376 Aegean aboard which Mavromatis was skipper. Aegean was part of the 213-boat fleet in the Lexus Newport to Ensenada Race, a 125-mile overnight race put on by the Newport Ocean Sailing Assocation.

Aegean‘s tracker had stopped transmitting at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, but trackers frequently have glitches so little was made of it until Eric Lamb of Vessel Assist spotted a debris field. The bodies of Mavromatis’ three crewmembers — William Reed Johnson Jr., 57, Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, and Kevin Rudolph, 53 — were located quickly yesterday, and all had reportedly suffered terrible injuries. Considering the fact that Aegean looked as if it had "gone through a blender," according to Lamb, and that other racers report seeing a freighter in the vicinity around the time the tracker stopped working, it’s suspected that a freighter or other large ship ran over the little boat that night. "We haven’t discounted that possibility," said Bill Fitzgerald, the Coast Guard’s lead investigator for San Diego. "We’re still tracking down any vessel that may have been in their area." 

UPDATE: Michael Lawler, a crewmember aboard the Newport Beach-based Choate 48 Amante, reports having a close encounter with a freighter in the same vicinity and time as Aegean‘s tracker stopped working. "We were farther offshore, about 10-12 miles west of the Coronados," says Lawler. "Around 1:30 a.m., I went on watch and saw a freighter bearing down on us at what was probably 20 knots. His range lights were lined up and I could see both red and green bow lights. I didn’t have time to get on the radio, so I grabbed my two million-candlepower spotlight and aimed it at the ship. That caught his attention and he took a hard left turn to take our stern. He passed about 1/4 mile behind us." Lawler, who circumnavigated aboard his North Wind 47 Traveller, says the wind was light, the seas were a little lumpy, and visibility was good.

One of the largest pieces of flotsam that was found just happened to have the boat’s name emblazoned on it. Sadly, the 600-square mile search only turned up more small pieces of the boat, but not the body of Theo Mavromatis.

© Michael Lawler

Finishers and race officials held a moment of silence at the awards ceremony yesterday to remember their fallen comrades. "These were the first deaths in the 65-year history of the race, a record built on a safety program featuring several pre-race seminars each year and enforced by the race’s rules," said the race’s press officer, Rich Roberts.

Fromm Found; Investigation Panel TBA

The body of a deceased sailor found floating offshore Thursday has been positively identified as that of Jordan Fromm, 25, of Kentfield. He was one of five fatalities during the Full Crew Farallones Race on April 14. The bodies of Alexis Busch, Alan Cahill and Elmer Morrissey still have not been found.

Even as Fromm’s body lay in the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s facility awaiting identification late last week, controversy brewed within the local sailing community over the decision by Coast Guard Captain of the Port Cindy Stowe to temporarily suspend permits for local offshore races. Without a valid permit, the Yacht Racing Association (YRA) and other local organizations cannot, in effect, run their races, as — the way we understand it — their liability insurance would be invalid, and fines up to $2,500 could be incurred.

Although the CG’s decision was unprecedented, at least within this jurisdiction, our conversation with Capt. Stowe on Saturday helped clarify her position. "I refer to this as a pause in activity," she said, "so we can all see what we can learn from this tragedy, and reflect on the safety of future events." Her office issues permits for over 1,300 marine events annually — roughly twice as many as anywhere else in the country — of which 24 are offshore races. The Bay Area’s 11th CG District also responds to far more search and rescue calls than any other U.S. jurisdiction. Given that combination of factors, we’re not terribly surprised that the decision was made (locally, by the way) to put the brakes on offshore racing for an interim period, while an in-depth review of safety protocols is carried out. 

Even though searching for wayward mariners and dealing with tragic losses is all in a day’s work for Guardsmen, it’s fair to say that neither executing nor overseeing such tasks can be accomplished with complete emotional detachment. Stowe herself was frequently in touch with family members of all five victims, beginning on the afternoon of the incident. And it was she who ultimately had to call them all to report that the search for their loved ones had been called off.

While comments about the postponement decision found on racing and sailing blogs (such as our Facebook site) reflect both ire and empathy, Laura Muñoz, executive director of the YRA explains, "I do understand the frustration, but I think we all need to take a step back right now. If we can make things safer, the review process will be well worth doing."

As reported earlier, US Sailing has been asked by the CG to participate in the review process, in which "YRA will have a voice," according to Muñoz, as will other regional racing experts. US Sailing president Gary Jobson is expected to release the list of panel participants soon, possibly today. "The goal is to be finished with the review before the Spinnaker Cup," explained Muñoz. It is slated to run from the Bay to Monterey, May 25-26.

Different Kind of Drug Murder in Mexico

There was a drug world-related murder last Friday night in Mexico that is notable for two reasons. First, it took place at a very unusual location: the Starbucks in Nuevo Vallarta, just a few hundred feet from Paradise Village Marina and just 100 yards from the entrance to the super family-friendly Paradise Village Resort, both of which have extensive security infrastructure. Second, the victim was not a Mexican, but 47-year-old Tom Gisby.

Mexican authorities went out of their way to say that Gisby was not some typical tourist on vacation. This claim was verified by Vancouver, B.C. police, who described Gisby as a "major international drug trafficker" for more than 20 years, with extensive connections in Mexico and Colombia.

There is a major gang war going on in Vancouver between the Hells Angels, the Dhak Group, the Red Scorpions, the United Nations Gang, and others. Gummit Dhak was gunned down outside a mall in Canada in ’10. A Hells Angel and a member’s niece were wounded a short time later. In January of this year, explosives destroyed Gisby’s motorhome near Whistler, Canada, although he suffered only minor burns. That same day Salih Abdulaziz Sahbaz, a B.C. gangster in the United Nations Gang, was shot to death in Mexico. Just a day later, gangster Sandip Duhre was gunned down in the Sheraton Wall Centre in Vancouver.

Canadian authorities say Gisby is at least the sixth Canadian with links to the BC drug trade who has been gunned down in Mexico in recent years. After his motorhome was blown up, Gisby apparently sought refuge in Mexico, where he’d reportedly spent a lot of time over the years.

New Latitude and Ha-Ha Sign-up Tomorrow

We don’t normally publish ‘Lectronic Latitude on Tuesdays, so we need to tell you today that the May edition of Latitude 38 will hit the streets tomorrow. . .

The May issue will be available at marine businesses all along the West Coast tomorrow.

©2012 Latitude 38 Media, LLC

. . . and tomorrow also marks the beginning of online registration for Baja Ha-Ha XIX, the 750-mile rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. You’ll find full details about this exceedingly popular event on the website. While we wouldn’t advise you to sign up unless you’re sure you can make the trip, one reason to sign up soon is that slips in Cabo are assigned on the chronological order in which boats are entered. Hope you can make the trip this year — it’s sure to be a blast.