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2 injured sailors rescued by Coast Guard, to be flown for treatment

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 11:40 PM EDT, Sun April 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A Coast Guard cutter is on site, a Coast Guard spokesman says
  • 2 injured sailors are safely on a small boat, a Coast Guard official says
  • They'll be flown to San Francisco, to get further medical treatment
  • Their ship was damaged in stormy weather while in a round-the-world race

(CNN) -- After bad weather hindered earlier emergency efforts, two seriously injured sailors were safely on a boat off California's coast Sunday evening -- preparing to fly to San Francisco after their 67-foot racing yacht was damaged a day earlier by high seas, a Coast Guard official said.

Four members of the Geraldton Western Australia's crew were injured Saturday in stormy weather as they sailed from China to San Francisco for a leg of what's called the Clipper Round the World Race, race organizers said. The rest of the crew was described as "uninjured but shaken."

Inclement conditions had hindered initial attempts to send a helicopter to the site, located about 270 miles west of San Francisco.

But by early Sunday evening, a rescue swimmer was in the water near the boat. Eventually, two of those hurt -- identified by Coast Guard Fireman Jordan Akiyama as a 50-year-old woman and 67-year-old man -- had been transferred to a small boat.

The plan was to move them from that small response boat, which had been deployed by the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf that is on site, and eventually fly them by helicopter to San Francisco International Airport, added Coast Guard Petty Officer Caleb Critchfield. Once on the mainland, the injured can get even more intensive medical treatment.

Three of the injured crew are based in Britain and one is Australian, race organizers said. The race named them as Nik Brbora, 28, a software engineer with a possible pelvic sprain; Jane Hitchins, 50, a doctor with four suspected broken ribs; and Max Wilson, 62, who has two suspected cracked or broken ribs. Wilson is the Australian.

It was not immediately clear if the 50-year-old injured person identified by Akiyama was Hitchins, or if the 60-something person who is being transported was in fact Wilson, despite the discrepancy in age between the two sources.

A fourth crew member, Mark Burkes, 37, initially was reported to have suffered a back injury, but race organizers later reported his injuries were less severe than initially thought.

On the race's website, Geraldton Western Australia's skipper, Juan Coetzer, said Burkes, from Great Britain, was at the helm of the 67-foot boat when the wave came crashing over the stern.

"The water had so much force in it that it pushed Mark into the helm, snapping the pedestal clean off. We had no steering, and crew were falling all over the boat," Coetzer wrote. The boat had been tossed by wind gusts between 45 and 70 mph before the wave hit, he recounted.

A Coast Guard plane dropped medical supplies to the vessel early Saturday evening, though bad weather prevented them from finishing the rescue effort in full at that time.

Critchfield said complications caused by bad weather were out of rescuers control, though he said it wouldn't stop their efforts.

"The weather always plays a factor, (but) the Coast Guard is used to working in difficult conditions," the spokesman said. "Our primary concern is to get these people the medical attention they need."

The Geraldton Western Australia had been on the sixth of the eight-leg, 11-month race when it was damaged. The contest pits 10 yachts crewed by amateurs against each other on a 40,000-mile journey around the world's seas.

CNN's Alicia Eakin and Greg Morrison contributed to this report.

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