A group of concerned sailors has released its own firsthand report, including photographs, about what it believes happened to the ill-fated sailboat Aegean during the Lexus Newport Beach to Ensenada Yacht Race at the end of April.
Findings from the the independent investigation, which was conducted on the morning of May 7 by John R. Walton and some of his sailing buddies, have already been handed over to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The GPS signal emanating from a handheld SPOT tracker aboard the Aegean, a 37-foot Hunter 376 sailboat, disappeared in the early morning of April 28.
The Coast Guard began looking for the boat and its crew after other sailors reported seeing debris in the area later that morning. The bodies of crewmen Bill Johnson Jr. of Torrance, Kevin Rudolph of Manhattan Beach and Joe Stewart of Bradenton, Fla. were discovered that day.
The body of skipper Theo Mavromatis of Redondo Beach was discovered floating near Mexico’s North Coronado Island a week later.
Walton, a boater from San Diego with more than 50 years’ experience who has competed in the Newport to Ensenada race a handful of times, said they decided to do their own investigation because he was disturbed by the “wild and somewhat irresponsible” speculation about the accident that he saw on online sailing forums.
“We just decided it would be appropriate to try and do something repeatable that perhaps would shed some light on the situation,” Walton explained. “Our belief was, ‘Why speculate if you could actually perform a direct experiment that could actually give you some empirical evidence?’”
The team of curious sailors traveled on a 20-foot powerboat equipped with a GPS device and an underwater camera to locations of the SPOT tracker’s last three data transmissions, which culminated at Mexico’s North Coronado Island. Walton said during the investigation, his crew found debris, including the bottom of a boat and a large piece of steel that could have been from the bow. The debris had no marine growth, he explained, suggesting that it was fresh.
Walton said the observations were made at a location immediately offshore from the projected point-of-impact and based on their findings predicted the bow impacted the island without the keel hitting bottom.
“The boat was immediately twisted in a clockwise direction by the waves. The damage to the bow was severe resulting in numerous smaller pieces,” Walton wrote in the report. “The bulk of the port side of the vessel was damaged by impact with the rocks, but the remnant was somewhat buoyant and drifted, slowly sinking, around the northern tip of the island, where it quickly sank to the bottom.”
Though the Coast Guard has yet to release its report of the incident, sailing association U.S. Sailing’s independent investigative panel released preliminary findings last week. The panel concluded, based on interviews with the Coast Guard and the GPS data from Mavromatis’ SPOT tracker, that the boat was destroyed when it hit the north face of North Coronado Island.
Walton said he agrees with that theory, but he has some reservations.
“The probability of that is high; however, I don't think it is conclusive,” he said.
Nevertheless, some people have suggested that a collision with the island is unlikely, given the size of the two-square-mile debris field and the small pieces of the boat found.
Race officials initially indicated that they believed the Aegean was hit by a much larger vessel.
Coronado Patch editor Jennifer Vigil contributed to this report.