Three crew members are dead, and another is missing, after the 37ft sailboat they were racing apparently struck a much larger vessel during a sailboat race. The collision happened either late Friday or early Saturday several miles off the coast near the border of California and Mexico.

The 37ft Aegean was part of the annual Newport to Ensenada race that began Friday. A statement from the organisers said 213 boats had registered to take part.

“It appeared the damage was not inflicted by an explosion but by a collision with a ship much larger than the 37-foot vessel," Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the Newport Ocean Sailing Association, which organised the race, said in a statement.

The race passes through shipping lanes used by large freighters traveling up and down the coast. Organisers said their tracking system indicated the boat disappeared about 1:30 a.m. on Saturday. A Coast Guard search turned up the boat’s wreckage. Three crew members of the sailboat were found dead and a search was under way early Sunday for a fourth. The AP reported that vessels and two aircraft from the US Coast Guard were involved in the search as well as Mexican navy and civilian vessels.

"This has never happened in the entire 65 years of the race that I'm aware of," Chuck Iverson, commodore of the Ensenada yacht club, told the AP. "We're all shocked by this whole event."

The race tragedy happened two weeks after five other sailors died in Northern California during the Full Crew Farallones Race. The 38ft yacht was smashed against an island, with three crew surviving.

The Coast Guard has suspended ocean yacht racing in Northern California, pending an investigation into the accident. "This temporary safety stand-down from offshore racing will allow the Coast Guard and the offshore racing community to further our common safety goals,” said Coast Guard Captain Cindy Stowe of San Francisco in a statement.

Despite the proximity of the two race tragedies, sailboat deaths along the US coast of the Pacific are relatively rare. In 2010, there were six accidents involving recreational boaters reported to the Coast Guard three miles or more offshore, with only one fatality. There were only eight deaths on sailboats that year (latest available figures) across the entire US, according to the Coast Guard.

Racing deaths are also rare. Two deaths and 19 injuries were reported nationwide in 2010 in every type of boat race, including high performance powerboats.

But Gary Jobson, president of the US Sailing Association, told the wire service there have been too many accidents in the past year.

"I've done a lot of sailboat racing and I've hit logs in the water, and I've seen a man go overboard, but this takes the whole thing to a new level," Jobson said. "We need to take a step back and take a deep breath with what we're doing. Something is going wrong here."

Jobson said US Sailing will appoint an independent panel to investigate the Ensenada incident, as it has done in the Farallon Islands accident.