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More Details Emerge in Race to Mackinac Tragedy

By Benjy Lipsman in News on Aug 5, 2011 3:40PM

Tragedy struck this year's Race to Mackinac, with sailor fatalities for the first time in the race's 103 year history, when a 36-foot boat named WingNuts capsized. While initial reporting was spotty, given the remoteness of a rescue in the middle of the lake, SAIL magazine has an in-depth look at the events that transpired, costing Mark Morley and Suzanne Bickel their lives during the 333-mile race across Lake Michigan.

The quick and capable response of Sociable resulted in the safe rescue of six who had been aboard WingNuts. The crew of the Beneteau 40.7 put aside the race in order to help a boat in distress, and had the skills and equipment to prevent a bigger tragedy. With a veteran crew of Mac racers who had participated in a safety drill before the race began, the crew jumped into action to save their fellow sailors. While the primary rescue vessel, they were not alone as sportsmanship took precedence over competition. We have heard first-person accounts from a friend aboard Vayu, another sailboat in the 40.7 fleet that was nearby when the events transpired. Having suffered a shredded mainsail themselves in the storm, Vayu provided assistance by firing parachute flares and radioing to make sure help was on the way and assisting in the search for the missing two sailors.

While nothing can bring back the two who perished at sea, the Chicago Yacht Club has requested that US Sailing investigate the tragedy and make recommendations for ways to improve the safety of their annual event. The most likely change will be for the race coordinators to make the ultimate call on a vessel's seaworthiness. Under current rules, boats only have to be a minimum LOA of 26 feet in order to enter. According to Ron White, chief measurer for this year’s race, “the rules place the responsibility to determine seaworthiness of the vessel squarely on the shoulder of the person in charge, the skipper…It is not the function or responsibility of the organizing authoring to determine seaworthiness.” While WingNuts met the length requirements, it's lightweight keel and overall light weight was not intended for offshore racing.The weight of other boats keels will cause the boat to right itself after capsizing, while WingNuts stayed upside-down.

Ultimately, it may have been weather beyond what any might have expected that caused the tragedy. Winds registered over 100 knots and were accompanied by heavy rain and high waves. “It was unbelievable. It was just violent and it wouldn’t stop. It wasn’t wind. It was a wall of water,” said Richard Stearns, a veteran of dozens of Mackinac races who was aboard another of the boats on the scene of the rescue. But the Chicago Yacht Club appears committed to determine how the can keep their sailors safe no matter what they encounter while traversing the lake.