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Crew in fatal yacht race shared love of racing

SAN FRANCISCO — The racing yacht that was slammed by unexpectedly large waves in a tragic accident that left one crew member dead and four missing was manned mostly by experienced sailors who understood the risk, according to friends and fellow sailors.

Eight people were aboard the Low Speed Chase on Saturday when a pair of swells knocked all but one of them into the water near the Farallon Islands and sent the yacht onto rocks.

Four had spent several years sailing together on the now-wrecked boat. They were joined by a shared love and the various skills they brought to a day or week at sea, said Adam McAfee, who was a member of that core crew and typically helmed the vessel until about 18 months ago.

"There is a part of me that is thinking, 'Would this have turned out differently if I was on board?" said McAfee, 45. "Could we have gotten out of there without anything happening, unscathed, or would I be dead Number 6?"

The owner, James "Jay" Bradford, 41, of Chicago, recognized that he did not have the expertise to skipper a sailboat in rigorous conditions, but he took care and pride in working with a captain and putting together a crew he joined as a hands-on member, McAfee said.

The scion of a family that made millions through a Nashville-based brokerage company, the low-key Bradford had lived in San Francisco until a few years ago and bought the 38-foot vessel in 2006. He quickly began going on local and distance races to Hawaii and Mexico with fellow sailors from the San Francisco Yacht Club in Marin County, where he kept the boat.

"It's very much a community and very much a way of life," McAfee said.

With McAfee in the driver's seat and Bradford working in the middle of the boat, Marc Kasanin, a professional artist and talented sailor close to their ages, was recruited to trim the main sail. Rounding out the group of regulars was Jordan Fromm and Nick Vos, strong young men in their 20s who had grown up sailing with the yacht club's youth sailing program, and Alexis Busch, Vos' girlfriend since the two were in high school.

"They were inseparable, they did everything together," Zoe Fritz, 20, a co-worker of Busch's at a Marin County health club, said of Busch and Vos.

Busch was a passionate San Francisco Giants fan who as bat girl for the team was the first to congratulate career home run king Barry Bonds when he crossed the plate after hitting his 500th home run in 2007. Her father was a longtime executive with the team.

She also played baseball as a catcher in New South Wales, and last year, while accompanying her there, Vos participated in the famed Sydney to Hobart yacht race, said Ron Young, a noted Bay Area sailor who knew the couple and had sailed with Bradford. As the smallest crew member on Bradford's yacht, Busch usually was tasked with performing maintenance tasks below deck.

A couple of months ago, Bradford started asking who wanted to be part of the crew that would race Low Speed Chase in Saturday's Full Crew Farallones race. The 54-mile, daylong regatta starts in San Francisco Bay, passes through the Golden Gate and rounds a craggy outpost known as South Farallon Island.

Kasanin, 46, was up for it. So was Fromm, 25, who was hoping to start up his own yacht restoration business; Vos, 26, who had been honing his competitive racing skills in Australia; and Busch, 26, who worked at a high-end health club.

A key addition was Alan Cahill, a 30-something Marin County resident, husband and father of two. He had immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, had professional-level skills as a sailor, made a living as a freelance boat mechanic and paid sailboat captain.

Cahill was hired by Bradford to skipper Low Speed Chase as the only paid sailor aboard his boat during the Farallones race, according to Young. He would have been behind the steering wheel and making tactical decisions that day, Young said.

Bryan Chong, a member of the Tiburon town design review board, and Elmer Morrissey, an Irish citizen who had been living in San Francisco and knew Cahill, also signed on.

McAfee, who spoke with Bradford the day after the race, said the trouble started as the crew was preparing to round the island, the most technically challenging part of the race. Winds and high waves make navigating the turn difficult.

But while the crew was making plans for their next move, an exceptionally large wave broadsided the boat, sweeping Bradford and Kasanin overboard. Within seconds, another wave crashed into the craft, sweeping another five into the water. Only Vos, who got tangled in some lines, was still attached to the yacht when it ran aground on the rocks.

Another boat in the race that witnessed the accident radioed in a distress call. Coast Guard crews rescued Bradford and Chong, who had somehow managed to scramble up to the island's edge, and Vos, whose leg was broken.

Kasanin's body was found in the water the same day. Fromm, Busch, Cahill and Morrissey remain missing at sea. The Coast Guard called off the search Sunday night, saying the window for surviving in the cold Pacific had passed.

"We had done this many times before, and it wasn't new. It wasn't an unknown risk," McAfee said.

As well as grieving for the lost, members of San Francisco's sailing scene also are rallying around the survivors. Young worries how Vos will go on without his high school sweetheart.

"It's a very sad situation," said Dick Enersen, who grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay. "But everybody who thinks about it, and I hope most people do, know there are consequences and hazards, and stuff happens. In this case, it did."

Associated Press writers Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco and Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this report.