By Ronnie Cohen
TIBURON, California (Reuters) - The crews from at least 10 yachts saw or heard that a sailboat capsized during a Northern California ocean race this year, but none stopped to help in the aftermath of the wreck that killed five, according to a report published on Monday.
Sailors participating in the Full Crew Farallones Race off the coast of San Francisco in April continued to race past the distressed Low Speed Chase sailboat while five sailors drowned and three struggled to stay alive in frigid water, according to a report by a U.S. Sailing Association independent review panel.
"The panel found it troubling that no boats appear to have dropped out or delayed their race in order to render assistance, which is a basic tenet of the sea, as well as the first Fundamental Rule of the Racing Rules of Sailing," the report said.
The panel concluded that the primary cause of the accident was an unsafe course charted by the boat's paid captain and a breaker wave that hit the 38-foot (11.6-meter) yacht when it rounded too close to a rocky island and was exposed to "larger than average" breaking waves.
The panel also concluded that some of the sailors who died in the tragedy wore inadequate personal safety gear. Communication and race-management problems hampered rescue operations as well, the report said.
The panel interviewed the boat's three survivors and 14 others who raced in 10 other boats.
One of the survivors, 26-year-old Nick Vos, described holding his girlfriend, Alexis Busch, as the boat was battered.
"Nick had been worried about Alex, because she was cold and seasick," the report says. "He was holding on to her when the wave hit."
The boat bent backwards and Vos' leg popped and broke when Busch, his high school sweetheart, slipped out of his hands, the report said.
"As the wave dissipated, he heard a scream and scanned the water for Alex, shouting 'Alex! Alex!' ... Alex was 10 feet astern and giving him a thumbs up," the report said.
That was the last time Vos saw Busch.
Busch remains lost at sea and presumed dead, along with the yacht's skipper, Alan Cahill.
Vos was the only crewmember who remained on the boat. Violent waves ultimately prompted Vos to jump, and he spotted Busch and Cahill in the turbulent, 51 degree Fahrenheit ocean water, the report said.
Vos and another survivor, Bryan Chong, 38, told U.S. Sailing investigators that better safety precautions might have saved some of the crew.
"If they had been clipped in, the majority would have been okay, but bruised," Chong said.
When they saw the distressed craft, some of the other race participants did call for help, but not one stopped to help with a rescue effort.
"Although it is unlikely that the outcome would have been changed in this case," the report said, "there were many ways other boats might have provided aid by signaling with those on shore, searching for those in the water, or providing continuing relays for radio communication."
The panel recommended ocean racers take classes to learn how to avoid similar situations.
(Editing by Mary Slosson and Stacey Joyce)