GPS suggests Calif. yacht hit rocks off Mexico

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By BERNIE WILSON and ELLIOT SPAGAT, Associated Press

SAN DIEGO (AP) — An American yacht destroyed while racing from California to Mexico ended up on the rocky shore of an island just past the border, according to a website that tracks boats by GPS, potentially undercutting the theory that it was crushed by a large ship.

Coast Guard investigators have not recovered the GPS device but will consider the coordinates as they try to determine what caused the crash of the 37-foot Aegean that killed three sailors and left one missing, agency spokesman Lt. Bill Burwell said Tuesday.

Investigators are also scrutinizing the sailboat's debris, interviewing race participants and seeking records of any large ships in the area, Burwell said.

The GPS tracking information shows the boat landed on Mexico's Coronado Islands at 1:36 a.m. PDT Saturday at a speed of about 6 knots. The coordinates were the last posted by the ship a day after it left from Newport Beach, where the 124-mile race to Ensenada, Mexico, began.

The maker of the device was Spot LLC, a unit of Globalstar Inc. Its palm-sized gadgets track movements of sailors and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Michael Patton, a spokesman for the yacht owner's family, noted the tracking shows the GPS device landed on the rocks but not necessarily the boat. He dismissed the theory that the boat hit rocks because debris found just offshore was too small.

"Look at the destruction of it all," Patton said. "You're talking about it being squished."

Eric Lamb, who found the wreckage Saturday while on safety patrol, said debris strewn over 2 square miles looked as if the boat had "gone through a blender," with some of it a quarter-mile from the shore.

The San Diego County medical examiner said Kevin Eric Rudolph, 53, of Manhattan Beach and William Reed Johnson Jr., 57, of Torrance, both died from blunt force injuries. Rudolph's injuries were to his head and neck.

Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, Fla., drowned, but head injuries contributed to his death. The boat's skipper, Theo Mavromatis, 49, remains missing.

The coroner's report listed all three deaths as accidents but did not say what could have caused the wreck.

Troy Sears, an experienced sailor who owns the San Diego-based charter company Next Level Sailing, said the GPS chart "gives an important clue if not verification of what happened to the vessel."

"It looked like they plotted a course for Ensenada and North Coronado Island was directly in the way."

Sears, who visited the part of the island where the GPS tracking ended, said it was unlikely that the device fell off the boat because the chart shows a steady speed and straight course.

"That section of North Coronado Island is near vertical and it would be like hitting a wall. There's no beach to stop or slow a vessel, so a vessel would make contact with a near-vertical wall," he said.

The deaths were the race's first fatalities in its 65 years and came two weeks after five sailors were killed in the waters off Northern California when their 38-foot yacht was hit by powerful waves and ran aground on a rocky island.

By ocean racing standards, the number of casualties in the two races is startling. Previous major ocean racing disasters have been caused by freak storms, including the one that killed 15 sailors in the Irish Sea in the 1979 Fastnet Race and one that killed six in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race.

Gary Jobson, president of the U.S. Sailing Association, said the group would look at the GPS coordinates as part of its investigation.

GPS devices are increasingly popular among sailors, said Jobson, who attaches one to the rail of his boat.

Mavromatis was a sailor his entire life and did not appear to have ever faced scrutiny about safety, Conrad Thieme, manager of Marina Sailing, a company that rented the boat on his behalf.

Mavromatis twice won the Newport-to-Ensenada race in his category and also placed second and third, said Patton, the family spokesman. The Greek immigrant told friends that he once tried out for the Greek Olympic sailing team.

Patton was supposed to be the fifth crew member but canceled when his mother was hospitalized with symptoms of heart trouble in Illinois. Her health scare did not turn out to be serious.

"I feel lucky, but it's not like I'm going to go out and buy a lottery ticket," he said. "I'm not the story."

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Online:

Spot LLC's GPS track of the destroyed yacht: http://bit.ly/K1Bdng

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