Police: Sailboat too crowded in fatal Calif mishap

Too many people were on board a sailboat that capsized and killed two passengers during an outing in San Diego Bay for people with special needs, police said Wednesday.

Too many people were on board a sailboat that capsized and killed two passengers during an outing in San Diego Bay for people with special needs, police said Wednesday.

The San Diego Harbor Police found that overloading, the vessel's condition and the absence of lifejackets contributed to the March 27 mishap.

Investigators said the sail was held together with duct tape and staples, and the vessel had wear and tear to be expected of a boat made in 1988.

When it capsized, there were 10 people aboard the 26-foot boat, which is designed to sleep six people, said Harbor Police Chief John Bolduc. Investigators also found the weight on board was unevenly distributed.

San Diego County prosecutors reviewed the findings and do not plan criminal charges.

"We just don't' feel like we have enough evidence to support a charge of criminal negligence," Bolduc said. "We can't re-create exactly what happened that evening, but we think there are some contributing factors, but certainly none that rise to the level of criminal charges."

Police had strong words for Heart of Sailing Foundation founder George Saidah, who was piloting the boat and frequently took passengers on trips for the Bloomington, Ind.-based charity.

"We are not labeling him an experienced captain, he's labeled himself as that," Bolduc said at a news conference. "We don't know what his specific experience was, but certainly every vessel operator needs to know the limitations of their vessel and they ultimately have to oversee the safety of their passengers."

Saidah did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

John Shean, an attorney and Heart of Sailing's board president, said he had not seen the police report and could not comment on its findings.

"They spent four months looking into this," Shean said. "I'm sure they've done a thorough job."

In March, Shean said a gust of wind caused the boat to tip. He said Wednesday that he still believed that was a factor. However, Bolduc said investigators found no evidence that weather contributed to the mishap.

Chao Chen, 73, and his son, Jun Chen, 48, of San Diego, died from drowning. They were the grandfather and uncle of an 11-year-old autistic boy on the boat. Bolduc said neither adult was wearing a life jacket, though there were "plenty" available on board.

All eight others aboard, including an adult with special needs, were dumped into 55-degree water.

Life jackets are required for children under 16 and recommended for adults.

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. Shean said the group has voluntarily suspended voyages on the West Coast since the March mishap and hopes the trips can resume now that the investigation is complete.

The sailboat's manufacturer, Costa Mesa-based MacGregor Yacht Corp., has said that when a 1,200-pound water tank that runs along the centerline of the hull is full, the boat should spring back up immediately if it leans too far into the water.

Investigators said they found the tank empty after it was upside down for three hours but could not determine if it was full when the boat capsized.


On the Net:

Heart of Sailing Foundation: http://www.heartofsailing.org/default.asp

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