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Deaths in Calif. races bring search for answers

SAN DIEGO - Since the first half of the 20th century, sailors seeking wind, waves, and heady competition in California could race from Newport Beach to Ensenada, Mexico, or sail out past the limits of the San Francisco Bay in the Full Crew Farallones Race, giving little thought to death and danger. At least until this spring.

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, the sailing community was stunned again.

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Three sailors were killed and one went missing, their yacht found in pieces near the Mexican border, perhaps in a collision with a large ship in the middle of the night.

The San Diego County medical examiner said Monday that Kevin Eric Rudolph, 53, of Manhattan Beach, and William Reed Johnson Jr., 57, of Torrance, Calif., died of blunt force injuries; and Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, Fla., drowned. The boat’s skipper was missing.

The Coast Guard was seeking records of any large ships in the area when the 37-foot Aegean was believed to have been destroyed early Saturday, said Lieutenant Bill Burwell, an agency spokesman.

Burwell, a Coast Guard pilot who helped locate the three bodies, said he is not ruling out that the yacht collided with rocks on Mexico’s Coronado Islands. Race organizers say they see no other explanation other than a collision with a larger ship.

Gary Jobson, president of the US Sailing Association, said he was horrified by the latest accident. “We need to take a step back and take a deep breath with what we’re doing. Something is going wrong here,’’ he said.

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