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, 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 seven men and one woman 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 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.
A Mayday call went out at about 3 p.m. PDT on Saturday, Coast Guard Petty Officer Levi Read said. Three helicopters, a surveillance plan, 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 cold 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.
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 have encountered plenty of wildlife in their search for the missing crew members, but have not reported seeing any sharks that would pose additional danger to anyone stuck in the water, Read said.
The wreckage of Low Speed Chase remains grounded on one of the islands while the search for survivors continues at least until sunset Sunday, he said.
Members of the San Francisco Yacht Club, which is located just north of the city in Marin County, planned to hold a candlelight vigil on Sunday evening to honor the missing crew members and the person who died.
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.
The association posted a statement Sunday expressing 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.
AP reporters John Marshall in Belvedere, Calif. and Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this story.