A century-old tradition, the Full Crew Farallones Race has never been for the faint of heart: Winds averaging 10 to 20 knots and churning 14-foot (4.25-meter) Pacific Ocean swells are among the rough conditions typically braved by yachts and their crews during the day long regatta, a spring favourite of skilled sailors.
But on Saturday, powerful waves and a disastrous series of events brought rare tragedy to the august race and the San Francisco Bay area's large sailing community.
One crew member died and four others remained missing at sea Sunday after two strong waves swept them from their boat near the rocky Farallon Islands, the halfway point of the 54-mile (87-kilometre) race that began at daybreak in San Francisco and had 49 entrants.
It was the first known fatality in the 143-year history of the San Francisco Yacht Club, which managed the race for the Offshore Yacht Racing Association and where the yacht involved in the accident, the 38-foot (11.5-meter) Low Speed Chase, was based, club director Ed Lynch said.
"The race community is a very tight-knit group of people, and obviously this tragedy has reached far and wide around the world," Lynch said. "It's an event that will give everybody pause."
Low Speed Chase's owner and captain, 41-year-old James Bradford of Chicago, was among the three survivors whom the U.S. Coast Guard, assisted by National Guard helicopters, pulled from one of the islands about 300 feet (90 metres) from their damaged vessel, Lynch said.
Bradford and another crew member were briefly treated at a hospital, while the third survivor was admitted overnight with a broken leg and contusions, he said.
The seven men and one woman on board ranged in age from their 20s to their 40s, according to Lynch. He said the County Coroner's Office has identified the crew member whose dead body was pulled from the water as Marc Kasanin, 46, of California.
The crew members who are still missing are: Alan Cahill California.; Jordan Fromm of California.; Elmer Morrissey, who is from Ireland; and Alexis Busch of California who was the only woman aboard the Low Speed Chase, Lynch said.
Lynch said the yacht club, which is located just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in Belvedere, has 1,400 members and is a place where "lawyers, carpenters and doctors can all have a beer together and talk about their love of sailing." But Saturday's race was likely to attract the most dedicated recreational sailors, he said.
"The Farallon Islands are a destination to go and sail around, and it is certainly some of the toughest conditions around in a sailing environment," Lynch said. "It's not for everybody, but for the people who do it, it's a thrill."
The conditions during Saturday's race were typically rough, but Low Speed Chase ran into trouble when it was broadsided by a large wave and some crew members were swept overboard, he said.
As the boat was turning around to get them, a second wave flung all but one of the remaining crew members into the water and the yacht aground, Lynch said. At least one other boat in the race witnessed the accident, but was unable to render aid without endangering its crew, he said.
The vessel master told investigators the yacht was rolled several times by the waves, the Coast Guard said.
A Mayday call went out at about 3 p.m. PDT on Saturday, Coast Guard Petty Officer Levi Read said. Three helicopters, a surveillance plan, two patrol boats and a larger cutter were visually searching a 15-mile (24-kilometre) by 30-mile (48-kilometre) swath of water around the islands, as well as shoreline areas Sunday for the missing crew members.
The entire crew was believed to have been wearing life vests and foul weather gear, which made rescuers optimistic they may find more survivors, Read said.
"We wouldn't have all the assets we have out there now if we weren't hopeful," he said.