FINDING THE AEGEAN: OB lifeguard one of two diving vets to clear up months-old mystery
by Mariko Lamb
Sep 05, 2012 | 3199 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
San Diego Lifeguard Services Sgt. Ed Harris, who is stationed in Ocean Beach and lives in Point Loma, pulls up a piece of the missing Aegean’s hull on the sea floor near North Coronado Island, 15 miles southwest of Point Loma.                                     Courtesy photo by Russell Moore
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Longtime San Diego boating and diving veterans Russell Moore and Ed Harris have recently made a remarkable breakthrough in a boating accident that left four dead when a 37-foot sailing yacht disappeared in the dark of night during the annual Newport-to-Ensenada Regatta in April, marking the first fatalities in the 65-year history of the race.

The fate of the boat, named the Aegean, and its occupants has been shrouded in mystery since the boat’s GPS tracking system made its last signal at 1:30 a.m. on April 28 near North Coronado Island, just 15 miles southwest of Point Loma and directly on the rum line to Ensenada. The disaster left in its wake the death of four highly skilled sailors, a debris field of lightweight surface material and many experts in the sailing community scratching their heads.

Initial reports about the accident indicated that a much larger vessel or tanker likely struck the Aegean, rendering the boat to a pulp.

When Moore — captain of a U.S. Coast Guard-certified commercial RIB (rigid inflatable boat) — heard the reports, however, he was dubious.

“I didn’t believe the explanation that was put forth in the popular press, so I kept checking the blogs and researching the story as it was unfolding,” he said. “That’s kind of my backyard. I work right around there almost everyday, and it just became something that haunted me.”

His urge to get to the bottom of the mystery led him to enlist the help of his friend and diving expert Ed Harris, a San Diego lifeguard sergeant who has logged thousands of hours on underwater search-and-rescue dives along San Diego’s coastline.

“There were just certain things that struck us and we thought, ‘We have to figure this out.’ I was obsessed with it because this is something we could figure out,” said Moore. “There are a lot of experts with more letters or numbers after their names, but not people that see more ocean than me or Ed.”

The U.S. Coast Guard had nailed down a specific site where the boat was likely to have crashed, making an easy starting point.

“We took all of the topside information that Coast Guard and other people had speculated on, and we applied that to do the underwater search,” said Harris. “We didn’t search the globe. We had pretty good indicators where this thing was.”

In their first excursion to the suspected wreck site on May 2 — just days after the Aegean’s disappearance — the 3-foot sea swells were jolting Moore’s 6,000-pound RIB around like a wine cork and aerating the waters beneath the surface, making the visibility no more than 20 feet. Despite scouring much of the island’s northern tip and possessing reasonable confidence that they would uncover some clue attributed to the wreckage, the duo came up empty handed.

After their initial defeat, it took three months before Moore and Harris would go back to the site.

“Our second dive was the first day in the weather window that we had. It wasn’t that it took us three months to go back down there. It’s the first time that the ocean got still enough to allow access to this,” said Moore. “It takes very little swell to turn this place into a washing machine.”

The area, known as “Pukey Point,” is set against sheer cliff faces, several underwater caves and pockets of shallow water that emit a violent energy.

“[The sailors] were there on a pitch-black night with 6-foot swells,” said Moore of the night the Aegean went missing. “By virtue of the angle of the land, there was just no way for that boat to survive. If they had hit anywhere else, they might have had a chance.”

The island, which is about one mile long, is only roughly 150 yards wide at the tip, making for a narrow target. That small target, however, is exactly where Moore and Harris found a few of the first clues of the missing boat’s location.

“When you do a lot of freediving and you’re in the water a lot, your eye really picks up on non-organic matter,” said Harris. “Three months had gone by, so enough of the boat had broken loose that I picked up a couple pieces — small pieces of hose and some other things.”

When he and Moore went back a third time, two weeks later on Aug. 22, they found the missing pieces right where they had been searching all along.

Debris, when scattered and settled along the ocean floor, settles into deep pockets, creating visible catch basins in the sand, said Harris.

“We’d find rollers and things like that in these areas, then we’d find more and more, so we were able to find the trail and find where the bulk of the material was,” he said. “Even though we went by the place where it was later discovered, the boat hadn’t broken up enough yet to send clues out, basically.”

After sightings of big pieces of fiberglass turned into the discovery of heavier items like anchors, chains, the shaft, the prop and other heavy pieces of metal, they knew they had found the missing Aegean.

“If you don’t find a keel and a motor, you haven’t found a boat wreck. All you’ve found is where debris ended up,” said Moore. “When we found heavy items like this, we knew this was it. This isn’t debris that came from somewhere else and ended up here. This is the boat.”

The wreckage sits behind large boulders that create a sort of curtain, hiding the larger pieces of the boat from view just a few feet below the surface, said Harris. The keel rests in just two to three feet of water and may even be visible from the water’s surface, depending on the tide.

“When we first found it, I felt a large degree of sadness,” said Harris. “This is an area where four people died, and when you see that destruction, it’s just really sad. There’s nobody to help you out there.”

Harris and Russell left the wreckage where it settled, but they were able to capture high-definition footage of their entire adventure and discovery using a waterproof GoPro camera. All evidence of their findings has been turned over to Coast Guard investigators.

“Our whole thing was to video document, not to recover anything,” said Harris.

Harris and Moore said their experience with this adventure couldn’t help but make them think about the victims’ last moments.

“It’s really hard with no lights, no reflection, no homes, no activity on this island. It’s just a black rock on a moonless night. Good people can run into it, and by all accounts these sailors were extremely skilled and extremely well prepared and very experienced guys,” said Moore. “We were there in scuba gear, fins and wetsuits in the daytime, and we couldn’t navigate all of that. If you were in your bunk in foul weather gear or in a sleeping bag in the dark, you have no chance. I can’t even speculate what their last moments were. We’ll never, never truly know.”
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