At approximately 3 P.M. on Saturday April 14, the Coast Guard Center in Alameda, California received an EPIRB signal from near the Farrallon Islands. A 38-foot cutter named Low Speed Chase, which was speeding along in the Full Crew Farrallones Race, had just been rolled by a series of large waves. Five crew members were washed off when a large wave crashed over the boat as it was transiting around the islands. Then, when the captain turned the boat around in an effort to save them, two more people were knocked into the water by another wave. One of the initial five people was found dead in the water by the Coast Guard and retrieved. Three crew members were rescued off rocks near the accident (video here). Four people are still missing, though the Coast Guard suspended their search Sunday at 8:04 PST. The Coast Guard does not have a set criteria for calling off such searches, but petty officer Caleb Critchfield said they do so only after there is no chance of survival and an area has been covered in detail.
"The decision to suspend a search and rescue case like this is never an easy one to make," said Captain Cynthia Stowe, Sector San Francisco commanding officer. "The Coast Guard extends our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the lost crewmen and the deceased. They will all be in our thoughts and prayers."
All of the other boats in the race returned to San Francisco safely. So what happened to the Low Speed Chase?The Full Crew Farrallones Race began in 1907 and covers roughly 54 miles—from San Francisco, around the Farallon Islands, and back. Conditions around the islands are rough, and frequently include 10-20 knot winds and 10- to 15-foot waves.
Reports had 49 boats entering this year's race, and some reports say that waves were gnarlier than usual around the islands. Some boats turned back. A sailor named R. David Britt, who was ahead of the Low Speed Chase, told the AP he went wide around the islands because of the danger. "The worst thing is to have a wave break on you," he said. "You can go up and down, up and down, but if a wave breaks on the cockpit on top of the crew, that's how somebody could get swept out of the boat."
Britt saw the Low Speed Chase behind him as he went into his turn, but did not see it again when he looked back later. Crew members on another boat saw the tragedy unfold, but we're unable to assist so close to the rocks.
"It's a disaster—they were inside, too close to the rocks," onlooking sailor Steve Hocking told the Chronicle. "Once you get in that close and a wave hits you like that, it rolls you over. There's not much you can do. The power of those waves is incredible."
While some commented on the position of the boat in its turn around the island, Coast Guard petty officer Caleb Critchfield said there could be no official comment on the cause of the accident until a full investigation is complete.
The San Francisco Yacht Club, of which the boat was a member, held a private vigil for members and their guests. "It's a tragedy of unbelievable proportions," director Ed Lynch told the Chronicle. "It doesn't affect just this club, it affects sailors all over the world. It's going to hit us hard for a long, long time."