By Ronnie Cohen
TIBURON, California (Reuters) - One of three survivors from a fatal California yacht wreck said the moments he spent overboard felt like he was in "a washing machine filled with boulders," and that five crew mates who died might have been saved had they worn safety harnesses.
In a letter posted to the website Sailing Anarchy, Bryan Chong of Tiburon, California, said he and the seven other sailors aboard the 38-foot (11.6-meter) Low Speed Chase should have been tethered to the boat.
A series of powerful waves thrashed the vessel earlier this month as it rounded a rugged island chain during the Full Crew Farallones Race off San Francisco, sweeping crew members overboard into the frigid Pacific and tossing the boat onto a rocky shoal.
"Hopefully, this incident will spur a wider discussion on sailboat safety," wrote Chong, reported to be 38.
The U.S. Coast Guard recovered the body of one crewman from the water. Three other men and a woman from the vessel remain lost at sea. After investigating the incident, San Francisco police issued a statement on Wednesday saying they "could not determine any criminal negligence."
Although sailors disagree about the benefits of tethering, the U.S. Sailing Association recommends safety harnesses be used in rough weather and on cold water. The conditions in the Pacific during the race qualified.
"Everyone was wearing life jackets, and there were eight tethers on the boat - mine around my neck. Unfortunately, none of us were clipped in when the wave hit," wrote Chong, who had never before sailed the ocean race course.
"I'd say to myself, ‘I can just clip in when something bad is about to happen,'" he wrote in Tuesday's online posting. But the father of an 8-week-old son had no time to react when a wave crashed into the boat off the South Farallones.
The islands, Chong said, "have a rugged, haunting beauty about them, but there's no time for sightseeing as we approach."
The best man at his wedding, Alan Cahill, was steering the boat, and Chong was trimming the mainsail when they passed over the day's largest swell, he recalled.
A wave he described as "massive ... unlike anything I've ever seen outside of big-wave surf videos," threw everyone overboard except Chong and crew mate Nick Vos, who broke his leg.
"The sails were shredded, the mast snapped, and every flotation device had been ripped off," Chong recounted. He said he and Vos tried to pull their crew mates back onto the boat.
Then a second wave hit them from behind and dumped Chong into the shark-infested water.
"People have asked me if I swam to shore," he wrote. "The best way to describe the water in the break zone is a washing machine filled with boulders. You don't really swim. The water took me where it wanted to take me."
Chong was rescued by the Coast Guard and Air National Guard, along with Vos and the owner-captain of the boat, James Bradford, 41, of Chicago. Cahill was among the five crew members who perished.
Chong said he believes he would have fared better if he and the rest of the crew had been tethered to the yacht.
"It's obvious to me now that I should have been clipped into the boat at every possible opportunity," he wrote. "Those 15 minutes in the water were the absolute scariest in my life. The boat was the place to be - inside or out."
(Reporting and writing by Ronnie Cohen; Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)