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DSA In the News

Large pieces of missing sailboat found

 

Jim Doyle, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, March 21, 2008

Scuba divers located significant pieces of sunken wreckage from the missing 31-foot sailboat Daisy in San Francisco's main shipping channel about three or four miles outside the Golden Gate on Thursday, but they did not find the vessel's missing skipper.

The Coast Guard, aided by divers from the San Mateo Sheriff's Department, identified large portions of the vessel's deck, cabin, mast and rigging submerged in 63-feet of water - not far from where the sailboat had last been sighted Saturday afternoon during an offshore charity race.

Investigators said the wreckage confirmed that Daisy met catastrophe on the race course, but there was no sign that it had collided with a commercial freighter, or other object. "It's a significant event in the case," said Capt. Paul Gugg of the Coast Guard, "(but) we were unable to determine cause from what we saw."

What happened to Daisy and its two-man crew remains a mystery. The boat's skipper, retired neurologist Matthew Kirby Gale, 68, of Mill Valley, is presumed to have drowned at sea or expired from hypothermia. The body of his crew member, Anthony Harrow, 72, of Larkspur, was found washed ashore Sunday near Half Moon Bay - still wearing a life vest.

After the Coast Guard cutter Sockeye used side-scan sonar Thursday to help locate the wreckage, the sheriff's divers descended beneath the choppy seas, examining the debris with less than 3 feet of underwater visibility in about 2 knots of current.

Gugg said the sloop's mast was detached - suspended above the shards of cabin and deck, and held in check by wire rigging. Divers, who left the debris in place, found no evidence of a fire or explosion and no indication that the boat has been hit by a larger vessel. But the wreckage showed that the ship's wooden cabin, teak deck and fiberglass pan - or cabin foundation - had been separated from the older vessel's fiberglass hull and keel.

"It appears that the hull and cabin top and pan delaminated. We did not see the hull," Gugg said. "Did it delaminate and sink, or did something happen when it was blown over and sunk and subsequently delaminated? We'd be speculating to say that it came apart first."

Many disaster theories
Any number of things could have led to the disaster. The boat may have hit a channel marker and taken on water so quickly there was no time to call for help. One or both sailors may have been washed overboard. The boat could have been capsized, pitch poled or dismasted by last Saturday's fierce swells and high winds. Or, a breaking wave could have torn a hatch loose or demolished the cabin.

Thursday's underwater search was just one part of a broad investigation by the Coast Guard into the disappearance of the fiberglass sloop. Investigators have also interviewed boatyard workers, ship captains and race officials.

Ships in the channel
Investigators have identified three incoming ships and one outgoing freighter that transited the channel Saturday afternoon and evening when Daisy vanished during the 27th Annual Doublehanded Lightship Race. Three cargo ship captains have been questioned about whether they saw the missing sailboat, and the bows of their ships have been inspected for evidence of a collision. The fourth vessel will be inspected when it arrives at its next port.

The Coast Guard has also inspected seven channel markers outside the Golden Gate for any sign of a recent collision with Daisy, a white boat with green trim. Gugg said there was "no evidence at first blush" of a collision with the buoys, but investigators plan to re-inspect them.

And Coast Guard investigators have questioned electronics experts and other contractors who performed recent work on Daisy to get a better gauge of the vessel's condition before its sudden disappearance.

Built in the early or mid-1970s, Daisy had undergone a recent overhaul at a Sausalito boatyard. But it is unclear whether a marine surveyor had examined its structural integrity in recent years.

Among the lines of inquiry being pursued by investigators is the apparent lack of communication between the regatta organizers, the race participants and Coast Guard officials. That may have delayed the Coast Guard response, officials said.

What can't be known
It is impossible to know whether an earlier search for the Bay Area sailors might have saved them, Gugg indicated. Daisy could have sunk in a few seconds or minutes, leaving the sailors little hope of rescue. Or, they may have clung to their swamped boat and fought for their lives for hours.

One thing is clear: regatta organizers did not contact the Coast Guard after the boat failed to finish the 25-mile offshore course and after its race committee had tried repeatedly to contact the vessel via marine radio.

Regatta officials for the Island Yacht Club of Alameda, which sponsored the event to raise money for cerebral palsy, said they had no duty to alert the Coast Guard, even though more than two hours had past since the last boat to complete the race had crossed the finish line near Marina Green at 2:45 p.m. Race organizers expected the race to be over by 4 p.m., but the official time limit for finishing the race was 7 p.m. - a liberal deadline in case of light winds.

No distress report
When asked why the yacht club's race committee had not called the Coast Guard, race manager Joanne McFee said: "That is not our responsibility. That's the responsibility of the family. We would only call the Coast Guard if we had been apprised of a boat in distress. There was no report of a boat in distress, therefore there was nothing to call the Coast Guard about."

McFee said race officials began hailing Daisy on VHF radio channel 72 at "around 3:15 p.m.," and continued to call the boat every 15 minutes or so, but there was no response. She said that a colleague also called Gale's wife to ask whether she had heard from her husband.

"If we were notified earlier, we certainly would have responded earlier," Gugg said. "We didn't hesitate to act when we were notified."

The wife of Daisy's skipper notified the Coast Guard at 6 p.m. on Saturday, expressing concern that she had not heard from her husband and that the boat had not returned to its Sausalito slip. She told the Coast Guard that race organizers had informed her that Daisy was last seen at 1 p.m. in the vicinity of "3" buoy, which is about 5 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Coast Guard officials tried unsuccessfully to hail Daisy by marine radio, and issued an "urgent marine information broadcast" to advise nearby vessels that the sailboat was overdue.

Organizers contacted
They also contacted race organizers on Saturday evening, who confirmed that Daisy was overdue but were unable to say whether the boat was equipped with either a life raft or an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon that could emit a distress signal.

The Coast Guard launched an extensive search, employing an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter that arrived in the search area at 9:30 p.m., followed by a 47-foot motor lifeboat at 10:15 p.m., an 87-foot coastal patrol boat at 10:53 p.m., and a C-130 Hercules aircraft at 11:35 p.m. - searching through the night for the missing sailors.

On Sunday morning, a Coast Guard vessel found pieces of debris floating west of the Golden Gate Bridge some miles southeast of where Daisy had last been sighted. The debris fit the description of having come from Daisy. Earlier reports that what the Coast Guard thought might be a portion of Daisy's rudder turned out to be a piece of its cabin.

The Coast Guard called off its search late Sunday, after concluding that Gale could not have survived hypothermia from prolonged exposure at sea.

'Slow-time Charlies'
Lucie Mewes, commodore of the Island Yacht Club, which sponsored the regatta, said that although the race organizers did not personally know the two lost sailors, they were heartsick over their loss. But she also referred to the sailors as "slow-time Charlies" because they were racing in a slow-rated vessel.

"I know that I didn't call the Coast Guard," Mewes said. "I didn't have their phone number. Now, I do."

Gugg said the Coast Guard's investigation is continuing, but the agency may not have the resources to look further for the boat's sunken hull and keel.

"I'm uncertain that we're going to investigate the exact cause," he said. "I don't know how much safety of recreation vessels would be advanced by a robust investigation of this event. But we're going to be continuing to look for debris. And we'll be doing what we can to get a good handle on the condition of the boat. I haven't ruled out going back to dive on the wreckage."


E-mail Jim Doyle at jdoyle@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle