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 Pacific Ocean swells are among the rough conditions typically braved by yachts and their crews during the daylong regatta, a spring favorite of skilled sailors.
But on Saturday, powerful waves and a disastrous series of events brought rare tragedy to the 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 powerful waves swept them from their boat near the rocky Farallon Islands, the halfway point of the 54-mile 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 Low Speed Chase, was based, club director Ed Lynch said.
``The race community is a very tight-knight 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, James Bradford, 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 from their damaged vessel, Lynch said.
Bradford and another crew member were briefly treated at a hospital, while the third survivor remained hospitalized with a broken leg and contusions, he said.
The eight people on board ranged in age from their 20s to their 40s, according to Lynch. The yacht club is contacting the families of the missing crew members, one of whom is from another country, before releasing their names or the name of the dead crew member whose body was pulled from the water, 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 more crew members into the water and the yacht aground, Lynch said. At least one other boat in the race witnessed the accident, he said.
A Mayday call went out at about 3 p.m. PDT on Saturday, Coast Guard Petty Officer Levi Read said. Three helicopters, two cutters and a smaller boat were searching the waters around the islands, as well as shoreline areas early Sunday for the missing crew members.
The Farallon Islands are a series of steep, rocky outcroppings visible from San Francisco on a clear day. Part of a national wildlife refuge, the islands are home to vast quantities of sea birds and are surrounded by waters rich with seals and sea lions, and sharks that feed on them. They are uninhabited except for a manned research station and are closed to the public.
The San Francisco Bay area is home to a vibrant sailing scene, with more than 35 yacht clubs ringing the bay's chilly, wind-whipped waters. Due to steady winds, easy access and picturesque backdrop featuring the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Coit Tower, the city of San Francisco was chosen to host the 2013 America's Cup, the sport's marquee event.
There are dangers, however, such as strong tides and commercial shipping. Those dangers, including strong winds, increase when sailors are on the open ocean beyond the Golden Gate bridge.
The Yacht Racing Association of San Francisco Bay expressed sympathy for the dead crew member and hope for those missing.
``We offer our thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of the missing crew in hopes they are returned home safely,'' the association said in a statement on its website.