Searching for keel of sunken sailboat

June 17, 2008 2:09:19 PM PDT
A missing keel, lying somewhere in the waters off the Texas coast, may hold crucial answers to questions surrounding the sinking of a Texas A&M University racing sailboat that capsized in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this month.Texas A&M University System officials, who are investigating the sinking, said they will do whatever it takes to try to retrieve the keel. Recovery efforts, which could cost as much as $24,000 a day, are scheduled to begin Wednesday.

"Odds are not real high of the keel being located," said Jay Kimbrough, deputy chancellor and general counsel for the Texas A&M University System, who is heading the investigation. "But we are going to work that and work it hard."

The keel broke off just before the Cynthia Woods, a 38-foot sailboat, capsized, stranding five sailors at sea for 26 hours and killing one of the boat's safety officer. The six-man crew, including four students and two safety officers, was competing in a 725-mile regatta from Galveston to Veracruz, Mexico.

Investigators began focusing on the keel after reviewing the vessel's maintenance and repair records, and receiving anonymous tips through a hotline that brought attention to a March 2007 incident when the boat ran aground and was drydocked for keel repairs.

"Was this bad luck or bad design?" asked Kimbrough, who Gov. Rick Perry appointed last year to head the investigation into sexual abuse of inmates in the Texas juvenile prison system. "Machines break down. Is this one of those cases or something else?"

The 38-foot sailboat capsized just before midnight June 6, 27 miles east of Freeport. Five of the sailors ? the students and one of the safety officers ? floated for 26 hours in choppy seas before being rescued by the Coast Guard.

A sixth man, safety officer Roger Stone, died in the sinking. His body was later found aboard the Cynthia Woods. Salvage experts recovered the boat and towed it back to shore.

Officials believe the keel of the vessel ripped off shortly after the race began, filling the boat with water and causing it to overturn.

Since the sinking, Texas A&M System investigators have been working with the Coast Guard, which is conducting its own investigation, to determine the cause of the accident. The university team has pored through invoices, maintenance reports, and repair records for the Cynthia Woods. The ship's log book, which might have contained important information about the boat's maintenance and repairs, was not found.

They have also followed up on four tips left on the hotline, including one saying that the sailboat had not been properly maintained.

As of Tuesday, the Texas A&M University System had spent $65,000 on recovery and investigation efforts, Kimbrough said at a news conference at the Texas A&M Galveston campus.

"A life has been lost. The most important thing is to honor that man's sacrifices, help his family and make sure this does not happen again," said Kimbrough, calling the university investigation a "mission."

Stone, 53, was credited with saving the lives of two of the students aboard the Cynthia Woods by pushing them to safety when the boat began to take on water.

A list of items recovered from the Cynthia Woods offers a poignant glimpse of Stone. Among the items believed to have belonged to Stone: a family portrait, an orchestra ticket to a May 25 dance performance at the Houston Grand Opera, a guide to Caribbean vacation cruises, and a copy of sailing rules.

Also found was Stone's Omega wrist watch, which stopped at 10:40 a.m. June 7 ? about 11 hours after the Cynthia Woods sank.

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