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Gust of wind caused fatal sailboat capsize

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

The wind hit moments before the 26-foot, 1988 MacGregor 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 Foundation.

"This is a tragic accident," he said.

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

The boat overturned Sunday in calm seas near a buoy marking the way from a protected inlet to the channel of the bay.

Some of the 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 the combined weight of the passengers exceeded the limit of the boat.

Safety questions surround fatal San Diego voyage

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 number of passengers did not exceed safety requirements as far as the charity was aware, he said.

However, some sailing experts have questioned the safety of having that many people on board the light craft designed for easy towing by vehicles.

The charity owns the boat, Shean said.

"As far as I can tell, the boat was not overloaded because there was nothing posted on the boat or in the owner's manual limiting the passengers to less than 10 people," Shean said.

Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, did not immediately return a call and it was unclear if federal investigators were involved in the case.

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. "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."

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." The all-volunteer organization offers free sailing in 15 other states and overseas, including Canada and France.

As the founder of the charity, Saidah dedicates his time to traveling all over the country to offer free sailing trips to special needs children. He often tows a sailboat behind him and is only in Indiana a few weeks out of the year, Shean said. Public records listed an address in Dana Point, in Orange County, as well as his Bloomington home.

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

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

Chao Chen, 73, and his son, Jun Chen, 48, of San Diego, died Sunday night. They were among seven members of one family aboard, said San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesman Maurice Luque.

Another person, who was not identified, was in "rather serious condition" on Monday, Bolduc said.

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

That account conflicts with initial information from authorities, who said the two special needs passengers were young adults and not the children. The police also listed the age of the girl as 10, not 9, and said both children were wearing life jackets. The discrepancies could not be immediately resolved.

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."

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