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May 2, 2012

Transponder Info Clarifies Aegean Tragedy

At least part of the mystery of how the Redondo Beach-based Hunter 376 Aegean was destroyed during last weekend’s Lexus Newport to Ensenada Race may have been solved. Aegean‘s SPOT Messenger GPS track shows the boat on a constant course and speed for more than three hours — leading them directly onto the rocky shore of North Coronado Island. This almost certainly eliminates the possibility that Aegean was hit by a ship, which had been the most prevalent initial speculation.

Lt. Bill Fitzgerald of USCG Sector San Diego says that investigators "have a substantial amount of evidence of a particular scenario," and Aegean‘s running into the island was "one of the primary possibilities." He noted that the GPS track was just one of the pieces of evidence. Fitzgerald was also quick to point out that investigators are not ready to announce a conclusion at this point, but hope to do so soon.

The rest of the mystery is why Aegean was kept on a constant course toward a solid obstruction. It’s possible that the crew was overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty exhaust. It’s possible that whoever was on watch at that late hour fell asleep. There are other possible explanations also, of course. We may never know the full story. For what it’s worth, Theo Mavromatis, who chartered the boat, is said to have been an experienced skipper, which is supported by the fact that he’d won his division in the Ensenada Race on two previous occasions.

A few people have clung to the ‘hit by a ship’ theory based on that fact that Low Speed Chase, which went onto the rocky shore of the Farallones during the huge surf of the Full Crew Farallones Race on April 14, remained intact enough to be removed from the island by helicopter, while Aegean, in much smaller four-foot swells, appears to have been broken into small pieces. It doesn’t seem curious to us, as Low Speed Chase appeared to have been washed up on a ledge, while Aegean mostly likely was repeatedly slammed against a steep and jagged shore. It was something like six hours between the time her GPS signal was lost and the first bits of her were discovered near the island by Eric Lamb of Vessel Assist. Given a sufficiently jagged shore, that’s plenty of time for a fiberglass boat to be left in little pieces.

The San Diego County medical examiner reports that Kevin Eric Rudolph, 53, of Manhattan Beach, died of blunt force injuries to his head and neck; William Reed Johnson Jr., 57, of Torrance, died of multiple blunt force injuries; and Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, FL, drowned. Theo Mavromatis, 49, is still missing.

The Aegean tragedy marks the first fatalities in the Newport to Ensenada Race, which has been held for 65 years, and at the height of popularity attracted well over 500 entries. We think it’s worth noting that most major sailing events on the West Coast — the TransPac, the Pacific Cup, the Singlehanded TransPac, and the Baja Ha-Ha have all had long histories without any fatalities. This is not to say that it can’t happen in those events, or that there was anything about the Ensenada Race that made it unusually risky, but rather that West Coast offshore racing events are generally quite safe.

Debate Continues, Investigative Panel Announced

Philosophically, we at Latitude 38 have always been much more in favor of personal responsibility than we are of big and/or nanny government. Nonetheless — and perhaps mostly in deference to the families of those who lost their lives in the terrible Low Speed Chase tragedy — we have sort of grudgingly accepted Captain of the Port Cindy Stowe’s decision to suspend offshore racing until an investigation can be completed. The grudging acceptance is based on the assumption that the suspension won’t be for more than a month, and that the investigative panel will primarily consist of sailors with lots of experience in the relatively unique conditions that are to be found when racing in the often relatively shallow waters of the Gulf of Farallones and near the Farallones in particular.

We have nevertheless been somewhat shocked at the degree of vehemence with which some readers have written to us to object to the suspension. Some who object note that if a commercial airliner crashes, the National Transportation and Safety Board doesn’t immediately cancel all commercial flights. They want to know why sailing is being treated differently. It’s a good question. Others object in large part because they believe that the cause of the Low Speed Chase tragedy is painfully obvious. The boat was driven into water far too shallow for the sea conditions. The following letter, from Al Hiller, who describes himself as a San Francisco sailor who has raced and cruised offshore since ’72, does a particularly good job of explaining this point of view:

"If the US Coast Guard wants to make ocean racing safer in Northern California, they should put a limiting buoy off the western point of Maintop Bay at Southeast Farallon, which would put it outside of the 15-fathom line. This would prevent a Low Speed Chase accident from ever occurring again." [Editor’s note: A fathom is six feet, so 15 fathoms is 90 feet.]

"Unfortunately, Low Speed Chase cut the corner on a shallow shoal in somewhat rough conditions, and an outside set got them. It immediately put them into beach-break conditions hundreds of yards offshore, and into an impossible situation. There is no safety equipment that could have saved them in those conditions. The bottom line is that driver and/or crew error put the boat there. If they had been watching their fathometer, and stayed outside the 15-fathom line, this would not have happened.

"If one examines a chart of the Southeast Farallon, one will see that where Low Speed Chase went onto the rocks is the largest shoal on the island. It’s a four-fathom shoal that extends many hundreds of yards offshore, and which at the outer edge is very close to the 10-fathom line. This creates a condition similar to that of the famous Mavericks surf break, where long period swells are ‘grabbed’ and slammed against a very steep underwater rock wall that shoals from over 15 fathoms to 4 fathoms in a distance of only a few hundred feet.

"Oceanography 101 — Long period waves react with the bottom, slow down, and start to stand up in water depths of 10 times their vertical height. Thus a 10-ft swell starts to stand up and become cycloidal surf as it hits the 16-fathom line. By the time it hits the 4-fathom line, many hundreds of yards off the western point of Maintop Bay, the larger waves have already turned into huge, breaking surf.

"A change in the racing instructions could prevent future accidents of this type. In my opinion, the Coast Guard’s over-reaction to this accident shows their lack of understanding of the issues involving seamanship, navigation and sea sense."

Experts say that waves generally break in water 1.3 times as deep as they are tall. For instance, a 6-ft wave will generally break in about 8 feet of water, while a 20-ft wave will generally break in about 27 feet of water. But as Hiller noted above, the bathymetry — or underwater contour of the bottom — can dramatically effect the height of waves. That’s why waves at places such as Mavericks are much bigger than at other spots nearby.

We’re pleased to note that the investigation panel called for by the Coast Guard and put together by US Sailing, which governs yacht racing in the United States, will mostly be comprised of very experienced sailors with lots of Northern California ocean experience. The Chair is Sally Honey, a former sailmaker who has done a lot of local and long-distance offshore racing, shorthanded and with full crew, often with her husband Stan, a world-renowned racer, on their Cal 40 Illusion; Jim Cornenman, a former Alameda resident who raced in multiple Pacific Cups before circumnavigating with the Schumacher 52 Heart of Gold, and co-founder, with Stan Honey, of SailMail. Others include: Professional race officer John Craig of San Rafael, Bartz Schneider of San Francisco, West Marine’s Chuck Hawley of Santa Cruz, Evans Starzinger of Milford, CT (an offshore special regs consultant), Jim Wildey of Annapolis, MD (who will advise on investigation procedures and formats), and medical advisors Dr. Michael Jacobs and Dr. Kent Benedict of Aptos.

"The panel understands the urgency of this review and anticipates completing initial findings and recommendations to be released to the public in June," said a US Sailing press release. "For relevant inquiries regarding the Farallones review or to provide pertinent information and helpful commentary on the incident or race, please email US Sailing.

It’s an excellent panel. While we don’t think they will come up with any surprises as to why the tragedy occurred, we’ll be very interested to hear what recommendations, if any, they have to reduce the risk of similar tragedies in the future. We also sincerely hope they can make their recommendations before May 25, the start of the Spinnaker Cup, a race from San Francisco Bay to Monterey Bay.

Another Emmy for Stan Honey

Two-time Emmy recipient and Bay Area navigating legend Stan Honey helped LiveLine bring home a golden statue of its own this week. Honey, the director of technology for the America’s Cup Event Authority, led the team that developed LiveLine specifically for the AC, and on Monday, it received the Emmy for extraordinary technical innovation.

LiveLine helps viewers keep track of the action on AC race courses.

© LiveLine

"The technology was developed exclusively for America’s Cup broadcasts by the America’s Cup Event Authority, Sportvision and NBC Sports Network," noted a press release, "and does what was previously impossible: overlay geo-positioned lines and data streams at two centimeter accuracy on live race course video shot from rapidly moving helicopter and water-based platforms.

"Driven by a GPS system that can track the America’s Cup catamarans to within a two-centimeter accuracy on the race course, event organizers leverage the system for on-the-water management of the sport. Telemetering of the course allows for rapid movement of marks and controlling course limits, while use of real-time overlap and zone-entry determinations enable umpires to make the most accurate decisions ever possible."

While Honey has received two personal Emmys for technical innovation in sports TV (the first-down line for football and the K-Zone for baseball), Sportsvision, the company he co-founded, earned six Emmys during his tenure as president. Congrats to Stan for yet another amazing win!

A Russian Empire in the South Pacific?

At our annual Panama Puddle Jump party we meet a great diversity of cruisers, whose sailing backgrounds and personal narratives are as varied as the range of countries they hail from. For example, take Max Ivanov and his family.

Max and his family strike a pose at our recent Panama Puddle Jump party. They plan to check out Russia’s new empire in the South Pacific.

© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

If his story is to be believed — and we have no reason to doubt it — Max and family left their home port of St. Petersburg, Russia, a decade ago in a home-built boat, and made it all the way to the Caribbean coast of Colombia before deciding they really needed to upgrade. When we saw Max, his wife Natalia, their two lovely daughters Xenia and Polina, plus Natalia’s mom, Nadezda last month they were about to set sail for the South Pacific aboard Theofania with a very specific target in mind.

Sure, they planned to check out the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Society Islands, as virtually all westbound sailors do. But they were most interested in seeing Suwarrow, a remote atoll in the Cook Islands (administered by New Zealand). Why? First, because it was discovered by a Russian in 1814 who lent it his name. And second, because — according to Max — it was sold last year to Russian politician Anton Bakov, who intends to start a new Russian empire there.

When we were told this news, we naturally thought Max was just trying to get a rise out of us with his seemingly preposterous tale. But upon further investigation we learned that the claims, and accompanying controversy, had been reported in the New Zealand press last fall. The news organization NZN reported that Bakov claims "he bought the bird sanctuary from Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna for tens of millions of dollars." Puna, of course, dismissed the claims as ludicrous, but Bakov was defiant, stating in the Moscow newspaper Izvestia that he bought the island last summer and has since declared himself prime minister.

We certainly hope Max and his family aren’t too disappointed then they find out the claims are a sham (we generally try to avoid assumptions, but in this case we’ll go out on a limb). But if they are, perhaps they can find some other uninhabited South Pacific atoll to claim for Mother Russia. In fact, that might be a better idea anyway, because Max himself could be prime minister. In any case, we wish the Theofania crew the very best of luck.

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.