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Chicago-Mac Panel: WingNuts Shouldn’t Have Been Racing

There were no bombshells, no big surprises. Nonetheless, the US Sailing Independent Review Panel’s report on the two fatalities that occurred during this past summer’s Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac provides a number of important recommendations for future races. It should also be required reading for anyone contemplating an offshore passage, thanks to the thoroughness with which it
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There were no bombshells, no big surprises. Nonetheless, the US Sailing Independent Review Panel’s report on the two fatalities that occurred during this past summer’s Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac provides a number of important recommendations for future races. It should also be required reading for anyone contemplating an offshore passage, thanks to the thoroughness with which it addresses it subject.

The Chicago Yacht Club asked for the report just days after Michigan sailors Mark Morley, 51, and Suzanne Makowski-Bickel, 40, died in the capsize of the Kiwi 35 sport boat WingNuts during a severe thunderstorm in northern Lake Michigan. The deaths, which occurred shortly after midnight the night of July 17-18, were the first sailing-related ones in the race’s 103-year history, and the Chicago YC, which has long prided itself on its safety record, vowed to provide an objective account of their cause.

A primary concern was WingNuts seaworthiness. A lightweight sport boat with radically flared topsides above a narrow beam waterline, WingNuts’s 35-foot LOA belied the fact that she was more an inshore round-the-buoys racer than an offshore boat.

Other concerns were the role played by safety harnesses—both Morley and Makowski-Bickel were still tethered to the overturned boat when their bodies were recovered—and whether the fleet was adequately warned about approaching bad weather in the run-up to the accident.

With respect to WingNuts seaworthiness, the panel was unequivocal in its findings. “WingNuts was a highly inappropriate boat for a race of this duration, over night, without safety boats, and in an area known to have frequent violent thunderstorms,” the report says. “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 includes a detailed analysis by naval architect and Associate US Sailing Offshore Director Jim Teeter’s. This analysis shows that while WingNuts’s basic theoretical stability index rating of 100.7 (the angle of heel at which the boat stops trying to right itself and capsizes) already put it at at the low end of the fleet in terms of its righting capability when knocked down, it failed to include the full effect of the boat’s wings—including the large surface area they presented to the storm’s gusting winds, which helped push the boat over.

According to the report, “If the full negative value of this design trait [wings] was applied to the equation, the Kiwi 35’s stability index would have dropped from 100.7 to 74.4. None of the other boats in the Chicago Mac Fleet would have seen such a drastic reduction if the full increment correction was applied to their stability index.”

To highlight the extreme nature of WingNuts’s design the report notes: “At the point when WingNuts was in the midst of capsizing, a nearby group of J/109s was being knocked down and pummeled by similar intensity winds. All had more sail up, and none were capsized.”

To help prevent future accidents, the panel is recommending that race organizers take a more active role in ensuring that boats like WingNuts aren’t allowed to get caught out in conditions they weren’t designed to withstand. “The assumption that the owner and crew understand what they are getting into does NOT hold up and race organizers need to rethink the role of gate keeper when it comes to vessel appropriateness for a given event,” the report says.

The panel is also recommending that US Sailing “consider redefining or recalculating [its] Stability Index so that it more accurately represents the boat’s ability to resist or recover from a knockdown or capsize. “We feel that there’s a need for closer scrutiny of vessels falling at the lower end of the stability index rating. The latter, as it currently stands, is an indicator but not an absolute means of determining the category of races that boats should be allowed to sail in.”

Complementing this call for closer inspections on the part of race organizers, the panel is also recommending that skippers and crews receive additional training/education to ensure they know what they are getting themselves into. Of particular concern, the report states, is the fact that the WingNuts crew, while aware that their boat was tender, nonetheless underestimated its vulnerability in extreme weather conditions. Sailors need to understand “the importance of stability, its implications, and how it’s calculated,” the report says.

Coupled with this effort, the panel is recommending that pre-race inspections be conducted “in order to advise skippers and crews on (1) the importance of stability, its implications, and how it’s calculated; and (2) preparing the boat and themselves for the rigors of distance racing.”

With respect to weather conditions the night of the accident, the panel found that, though, extreme, it was not atypical of storms in the northern Great Lakes that time of year. The panel also found that weather forecasters both accurately predicted that storm and warned the fleet of its existence.

Nonetheless, the panel’s report confirms the storm was a bad one, even for an area known for its occasionally severe weather. The panel is also recommending that sailors receive better weather training to ensure they both understand what is being reported and the implications of severe weather reports, in particular.

“According to the meteorologists we spoke with, a radar documented bow echo, containing a super cell thunderstorm developed west of Charlevoix, and likely resulted in a downburst with wind gusts of 70 knots. The cell passed close to the recorded position of WingNuts at the time of the capsize,” the report says. “The volatility of weather patterns moving across northern Lake Michigan make it reasonable to put more emphasis on weather awareness training. The fact that forecast validity degrades with time underscores the need to maintain a regular update schedule and how this should be accomplished is another facet of the training curriculum. Building an awareness of how to best utilize VHF weather channel updates, plus forecasts derived from cellular and satellite connectivity also fit into this training module.”

Concerning, the role tethers played in the two deaths, the panel found they were not contributing factors. Confirming earlier reports, the panel found that Morley and Makowski-Bickel were likely killed as a result of blunt trauma injuries resulting from the impact of the capsize. Drowning, was at most a secondary factor in their deaths.

According to the report: “There is no evidence that buoyancy of the inflatable life jackets worn by the crew inhibited their ability to escape from the inverted cockpit. Except for the two fatalities, who were helpless due to their injuries, all sailors were able to swim out. One sailor's tether made exit from the underside of the inverted hull difficult because it tangled in lines after it was released, but the problem was quickly solved and the person in that tether, [WingNuts crewmember] Stan Dent, later stated that he would again clip on with a safety harness, and he would also wear an automatic inflating PFD. ‘If you’re on a boat that you are 95 percent confident will not turtle, by all means that is the way to go.’”

In addition to corroborating earlier reports that Morley, Makowski-Bickel and the rest of the crew did all they could to save the boat prior to its capsize, the report reconfirms the seamanlike response of the rest of the boats in the accident area. In particular, it commends the crew of the Beneteau 40.7 Sociable, which rescued all six surviving WingNuts crewmembers.

The report also speaks highly of the U.S. Coast Guard and its response to the capsize. In the immediate wake of the accident, there were some who criticized the Coast Guard, suggesting they could have done more to save Morley and Makowski-Bickel’s lives. But the panel says the Coast Guard crews did the best they could.

In the words of the report: “The Coast Guard responded with search aircraft and vessels as quickly as conditions and distance allowed after receiving the distress call 20 minutes or more after the capsize. They monitored the activities of the capable race participants on scene who saved six of the eight crew, and the Coast Guard brought in the local police and emergency services to assist. The responders adjusted their efforts through the night as the evidence became clear that the two missing crew had been trapped under the boat and likely had died shortly after the capsize. The Coast Guard has the responsibility to save lives. Time does not always allow them to succeed.”

Beyond that, the US Sailing Independent Review Panel’s report provides an incredible wealth of information on the events surrounding the accident and many other factors involved. The combination of tables, eyewitness narrative and analysis not only fleshes out the events of the night of July 17-18 in almost painful detail, it provides some priceless insight into what it takes to prevail in extreme weather. Panel members Chuck Hawley, John Rousmaniere, Ralph Naranjo and Sheila McCurdy have done an exemplary job understanding and explaining the WingNuts’s tragedy. Hopefully, as was the case with the 1979 Fastnet Race and the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race, the legacy of this accident will be increased safety in future competitions. Time will tell how the Chicago YC and other race organizers respond to the challenge.

Download the full report as a printable PDF

For additional information on the tragedy, including video footage of the storm, click here.

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