A moment of silent prayer for the lost sailors takes place before the Lexus N2E awards ceremony Sunday.

A moment of silent prayer for the lost sailors takes place before the Lexus N2E awards ceremony Sunday. (Courtesy Rick Roberts / April 30, 2012)

Organizers of the famed Newport Beach-to-Ensenada sailing regatta were stunned by the mysterious loss of four crew members aboard a 37-foot boat that disappeared in mid-race, marking the first fatalities in the event's 65-year history.

While the U.S. Coast Guard was still investigating the accident, regatta organizers said they believed the boat was hit and demolished by a much larger ship — perhaps a freighter or tanker — passing in the dark early Saturday.

The boat disappeared from the online tracking system around 1:30 a.m. Saturday. Two sailors on other boats recalled seeing a large ship in the area.

"We're all in shock," said Chuck Iverson, commodore of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., sponsor of the 125-mile race, which is one of the sport's most popular. "We're still trying to piece it together and find out more from the investigation."

Three bodies were recovered Saturday from a scattered debris field near the Coronado Islands, about 15 miles south of San Diego. None was wearing a life jacket.

After scouring a 600-square-mile area Sunday with ships and aircraft, the Coast Guard on Sunday night suspended its search indefinitely for the fourth crew member. "We've exhausted all possibilities," said a spokesman.

The Coast Guard has yet to determine a cause for the apparent destruction of the boat, called the Aegean. But racing officials believe it was struck by a "much larger vessel".

The Coast Guard's lead investigator for San Diego, Bill Fitzgerald, said investigators were "tracking down any vessel that may have been in their area."

The deaths were the first in the history of the race, which this year had 213 entries and has a history of attracting such world-class skippers as Dennis Conner, Bill Ficker and Dave Ullman, as well as celebrities like Walter Cronkite, Buddy Ebsen and Humphrey Bogart.

The destruction of the Aegean comes two weeks after a 38-foot sailboat was swamped by two rogue waves during a race around the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. Five of the eight crew members were killed.

Despite these two disasters, statistics kept by the Coast Guard indicate that even though the waters off the West Coast are heavily used by recreational boaters, merchant ships and U.S. Navy vessels, accidents are exceedingly rare.

In 2010, the latest year for which statistics were available, six accidents involving recreational boaters were reported to the Coast Guard three miles or more into the Pacific Ocean — with only one fatality.

On Sunday, anguished family members of the four Aegean crew members waited for an explanation.

"I don't understand why it happened," said Leslie Rudolph, whose husband, Kevin, 53, was a crew member. "There were 210 boats. Why their boat?"

Rudolph was a co-worker with the sailboat owner and skipper Theo Mavromatis. He was not an avid sailor but had taken up the sport in recent years and enjoyed the challenge and camaraderie.

Rudolph had done the Newport-to-Ensenada race three times, his wife said.

"There is nobody like him," Leslie Rudolph said from their Manhattan Beach home. "He's special, he brought joy to everyone."

The San Diego County medical examiner identified two of the victims as Joseph Lester Stewart, 64, of Bradenton, Fla., and William Reed Johnson, 57, of Torrance.

Mavromatis' family declined to speak to a reporter inquiring whether he was aboard his boat.