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Newport to Ensenada race: ships captain missing after crash

4/29/2012, 5 p.m.

The body of the skipper of a yacht apparently smashed to pieces by a ship off the Coronado Islands remained missing Monday, April 30, as the families of all four men aboard wondered how the accident could have happened.

A spokesman for Newport Ocean Sailing Association, which puts on the annual Newport to Ensenada race, said the wreckage of the 37-foot Aegean dropped off the race's boat-tracking system about 1:30 a.m. Saturday, and the debris field found when the sun rose later the same day suggested it was hit by a much larger vessel.

Sailors who knew skipper Theo Mavromatis, 49, of Redondo Beach, said he was conscientious, safety-oriented and had his Hunter 376 outfitted with ``all the bells and whistles,'' including radar, which is a collision-avoidance tool.

Winds were light at the time, and if only one person were on deck, he may have had trouble starting the boat's auxiliary engine and getting out of the way in time.

On Saturday afternoon, the bodies of Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, Fla., and 57-year-old William Reed Johnson Jr. of Torrance were recovered, along with the body another crewmate whose name was unavailable at the time.

The ship that struck the fiberglass sloop has not been identified. Some of the first rescuers on scene were able to identify a debris field as that of the Aegean, because its transom, emblazoned with its name, was still afloat.

The yacht was one of 213 sailboats in the roughly 125-mile race, which started about noon Friday. Most boats finished Saturday.

The U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search Sunday afternoon.

It's never easy to make the decision to suspend a search-and-rescue case,'' said Capt. Sean Mahoney, the commander of the agency's San Diego sector. ``The Coast Guard extends its sympathies to the families and friends of the Aegean crew. They will be in our thoughts and prayers.''

The fatalities were first in the 65 years that the Newport-to-Ensenada race has been run, race organizers said.

Rich Roberts of the Newport Ocean Sailing Association, which puts on the race, said the collision occurred just south of border near the Coronado Islands, a group of four islands about eight miles off the Baja California coast.

The course of the Aegean crossed shipping lanes used by commercial and military ships headed to and from the ports of San Diego and Ensenada, and maritime investigators will attempt to identify the ship involved. The captain of ship hundreds of times as big as the Aegean might have been unaware of the collision.

The deaths marked the second yachting disaster this spring. On April 14 off San Francisco, five lives were lost when a yacht in a race around the Farallon Islands was disabled by a breaking wave and washed onto a rocky shore. That prompted the Coast Guard to suspend offshore sailboat racing in Northern California.