Charity Blames Wind Gust For Fatal San Diego Boat Accident

Chao Chen, 73, Jun Chen, 48, Killed In Heart Of Sailing Of Bloomington Outing; 8 Others Taken To Area Hospitals

A sailing accident in San Diego Bay that killed the uncle and grandfather of a special needs child on a charity boat trip -- and sent eight other people into the water -- was caused by a gust of wind that caught the jib, the only sail that was raised at the time, the president of the charity's board said Tuesday.

Rancho Penasquitos residents 48-year old Jun Chen and 73-year old Chao Chen died. Another unidentified victim is still in the hospital.

The maker of the boat, Roger MacGregor, believes the boat carrying 10 people was overloaded and questioned whether a water ballast, which helps the ship automatically right itself, was properly filled.

MacGregor, of Costa Mesa-based MacGregor Yacht Corp., said he has been working with investigators to determine the cause of the accident.

"We generally thought the boat was grossly overloaded," MacGregor told 10News.

The wind hit moments before the 1988 MacGregor 26 sailboat capsized, despite efforts to release the sail to reduce wind pressure, said John Shean, board president for the Bloomington, Ind.-based Heart of Sailing charity. Heart of Sailing of Bloomington serves children and adults with developmental disorders like autism and Down syndrome.

"This is a tragic accident," Shean said.

The boat had 10 people aboard including charity founder and executive director George Saidah, the only sailor on board, Shean said.

Shean received an account of the accident from Saidah, who called him in Bloomington. The charity is cooperating fully with the investigation, Shean said.

"Obviously a sailor will tell you that when a boat capsizes the pressure of the wind on the sail basically exceeds the center of gravity and it capsizes," Shean said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "There was a gust of wind. It was windy that day, there was a gust and he released the jib to let it fly out more so that it doesn't catch the wind."

He says Saidah is experienced and has sailed with thousands of children.

Some of the 10 people aboard were not wearing life jackets, but it had not been determined how many, said San Diego Harbor Police Chief John Bolduc, whose agency is leading the investigation.

Investigators were trying to determine the position of the retractable keel and whether passengers exceeded the boat's weight limit. The boat went down in calm seas near a buoy marking the way from a protected inlet to the channel of the bay.

A source close to the investigation told 10News the boat should have never been in the water.

"The characteristics of the boat indicated that the tank on the bottom of that vessel were full of air, were empty, there was no water in them," he said. "The operator of the vessel needs to be held responsible 100 percent."

Shean said the boat's water ballasts, which provide buoyancy, were properly filled and the keel -- called a dagger board -- was down. He also said California law only requires children to wear life preservers.

The group's website says Heart of Sailing was founded in 2004 by Saidah, a software entrepreneur and sailor who was motivated by his experience with a loved one with a cognitive disorder. The website boasts "a 100 percent satisfaction and safety record."

Its San Diego schedule called for seven voyages Sunday, and Shean said Saidah had been taking special needs children and their families out on one-hour sailing excursions all day Saturday and Sunday before the accident with no troubles.

The water temperature at the time was in the high 50s, low enough for hypothermia to begin setting in before help arrived.

Shean identified the dead as the grandfather and uncle of one of the special needs children, an 11-year-old autistic boy. The other child was his 9-year-old sister, who was not special needs, Shean said. He did not know the identities of the other passengers or their relationship to the two deceased men.

Sailing is good therapy for special needs children, Shean said, and parents often report changes in their children after a trip.

"It really is therapy for these kids. We've heard reports that they become more outgoing, that it improves their mood, it has improved their motor coordination," he told the AP. "These are reports from the people that know these children the best."

The model of the boat, which went out of production in 1990, has a water ballast in its belly that acts to right the craft if it capsizes, MacGregor said.

When the tank is full, the boat should spring back up immediately if it leans too far into the water and begins to capsize, MacGregor said. Investigators are focusing on whether or not the tank was full, he said.

"If the tanks were empty it conceivably could roll over," he said. "We're pretty clear: don't operate the boat with the tanks not full."

MacGregor said there were no weight restrictions for the older-model boat but added that he would never sail with that many people aboard such a small vessel. The number of people who could be safely accommodated also would also depend on wind and wave conditions and the experience level of the passengers, he said.

"It's a relatively small boat. The weight of the people outweighs the ballast on the boat if you give an average of 145 pounds or so per person," he said. "It was grossly overloaded in my opinion. There's nowhere for them to sit."

"Although this is a significant tragedy for San Diego -- the loss of two lives -- it was the heroism of Good Samaritans, Harbor Police officers and San Diego firefighters that led to the rescue of eight people in a very dangerous situation," Bolduc said at a news conference.

John Campbell said he and a friend were in their boat nearby when they saw the boat flip over.

"We had passed the boat earlier and I noticed it was overloaded. They were just sailing with their jib, not their main sail which was a little odd," said Campbell.

He said he and his friend were the first to try to rescue the victims.

"We managed to get one guy on board and then the wind kind of blew our boat off. I got another kid back on our boat and then we both got a couple more people onto one of the inflatables," said Campbell.

Campbell also said the retractable keel, a blade underneath the boat that stabilizes the vessel, wasn't down.

"If it wasn't down in the first place it would've rolled over really simple, real easy with one little puff of wind," said Campbell.

Authorities also were determining how much weight the boat was carrying to determine if it was overloaded.

Chris Tucker, owner of SailTime Channel Islands in Oxnard, said a boat that size should hold six people maximum, but with 10 aboard, there would be scant room for everyone to sit down.

"With that many people, if four people were told to sit over there and the other people got up, that would be enough instability right there," he said. "I'm amazed they didn't sink right where they all got on. That's just overloading the boat."

The boat was carrying five men, three women and two children, authorities said.

The eight injured people were taken to hospitals. The children were released after being treated briefly.

One woman drove herself to the hospital without alerting rescuers, leading to incorrect initial reports that there were only nine people aboard, San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesman Maurice Luque said.

A witness said the rescue scene was chaotic.

"I couldn't see the boat. I just saw them pulling people onto the launch, doing CPR, and a lot of people screaming and yelling," witness Ty Alicot told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "It's pretty hard to turn over a sailboat that big."

Investigators removed the boat from the water and hauled it to the boatyard to examine it.

Print this article Back to Top