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Report Blames Boat Design in Mackinac Tragedy

By Benjy Lipsman in News on Nov 1, 2011 3:20PM

During this summer's annual Race to Mackinac, tragedy struck as two sailors were killed after their boat capsized in high winds. Skipper Mark Morley and Suzanne Makowski-Bickel, both of Saginaw, Michigan, died when Morley's boat, WingNut, flipped in a violent storm. The remaining six members of the crew were rescued.

A report released this week investigating the incident faults the design of the boat. A Kiwi 35 sport boat, the boat's large sail area and light weight were not appropriate for such a race. Said the report,

WingNuts was a highly inappropriate boat for a race of this duration, overnight, without safety boats, and in an area known to have frequent violent thunderstorms. Her capable crew and preparation could not make up for the fact that she had too little stability, which led to her being ‘blown over’ by a severe gust.

The report commended the WingNut crew for their emergency preparation prior to the storm and praised Sociable, the boat responsible for rescuing the six surviving WingNut crew members. But even a prepared, experienced crew of sailors wasn't enough to avoid tragedy.

Both Morley and Makowski-Bickel drowned within minutes of capsizing, having sustained head trauma that incapacitated them and made them unable to rescue themselves according to the Charlevoix County medical examiner findings.

While WingNut's measurements met the met the safety requirements of the Offshore Racing Rule, which are the standard used by the Chicago Yacht Club, the boat was actually more prone to rolling that rules allowed. Given the report's findings, we can expect the CYC to alter their entry rules for boats to ensure that boats meet all safety guidelines for future races.