SAN FRANCISCO -- 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 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 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-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 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 San Mateo County Coroner's Office has identified the crew member whose dead body was pulled from the water as Marc Kasanin, 46, of Belvedere, Calif.
The crew members who are still missing are: Alan Cahill, of Tiburon, Calif.; Jordan Fromm, of San Rafael, Calif.; Elmer Morrissey, who is from Ireland; and Alexis Busch, of Larkspur, Calif., 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 plane, two patrol boats and a larger cutter were visually searching a 15-mile by 30-mile 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.
However, the Coast Guard suspended its search at sundown Sunday, and Petty Officer Caleb Critchfield said rescuers have no plans to resume it. He says the decision was made reluctantly after searching more than 5,000 square miles of ocean over more than 30 hours, well beyond the "window of survivability."
The Farallon Islands are a series of steep, rocky outcroppings visible from San Francisco on a clear day and uninhabited except for a manned research station. Part of a national wildlife refuge and closed to the public, 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.
Search crews encountered plenty of wildlife in their search for the missing crew members, but did not report seeing any sharks that would pose additional danger to anyone stuck in the water, Read said.
R. David Britt, a University of California, Davis chemist who skippered his sailboat, Split Water, in the Full Crew Farallones Race for the third time on Saturday, described the sailing out by the islands that day as "pretty intense." Swells nearing 20-feet-high were breaking far enough from the craggy outcroppings that Britt says he steered farther around them than he otherwise might to avoid getting swamped by a wave or dashed onto the rocks.
"The worst thing is to have a wave break on you," he said. "You can go up and down, up and down, but if a wave breaks on the cockpit on top of the crew, that's how somebody could get swept out of the boat."
Britt thinks he was not far ahead of Low Speed Chase as they rounded the islands, and thought it strange when he looked back later and no longer saw his competitor.
During the day, people dropped roses and tulips by the entrance of the San Francisco Yacht Club, which hosted a members-only candlelight vigil and prayer service Sunday evening to honor the missing crew members and the one who died.
Anne Kasanin, the mother of the sailor who died, attended the service and was touched by how many people knew her son, who started sailing at age 7 and lived his whole life on the cove where the yacht club is located. He was a well-known local artist whose landscapes in acrylic and oil reflected his love of the water, she said.
"He was a very dear son to me and a tremendous help, and I'm going to miss him very much," she said.
Bradford and the other two survivors attended the vigil, but were too distraught to talk about their experience, Lynch said.
Club member Brian Swift said that even though sailors are aware of the dangers of racing in open ocean, "what everybody is feeling is utter shock."
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 a 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.
Results from last year's Full Crew Farallones Race posted on the web site of the Yacht Racing Association of San Francisco Bay shows that Bradford entered Low Speed Chase in the event, but did not finish it.