Tragedy and Triumph in the Chicago Mac

A capsize in the 103rd Chicago Mackinac Race that took the lives of Mark Morley and Suzanne Bickel highlighted the dangers inherent in offshore racing and brought out the best in the competitors who responded to the accident.Ironically, in this era of EPIRBs and other technological “miracles,” it was a simple whistle—required equipment for all Mackinac racers—and a half dozen rescue lights
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A capsize in the 103rd Chicago Mackinac Race that took the lives of Mark Morley and Suzanne Bickel highlighted the dangers inherent in offshore racing and brought out the best in the competitors who responded to the accident.

Ironically, in this era of EPIRBs and other technological “miracles,” it was a simple whistle—required equipment for all Mackinac racers—and a half dozen rescue lights that led to the eventual rescue of six sailors.

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According to Bob Arzbaecher, skipper of the Beneteau 40.7 Sociable, it was around 2315 hours on Sunday, July 17, and his crew had just raised the main again, following a storm that had begun 45 minutes earlier, when someone heard a whistle in the darkness.

“We thought it was a boat to starboard that was bare-poled and still bearing away. We thought they were warning us away. It sensitized all of us to the fact that we’d just come out of a big storm and we needed to look out,” Arzbaecher said.

Soon afterward, a Sociable crewmember spotted a light off to port. “We could make it out intermittently, which meant it was in the waves. We immediately tacked onto starboard to get there. We flashed a spotlight and they flashed a light back,” Arzbaecher said. “We immediately went into rescue mode. There was no question what to do.”

In fact, the six sailors clinging to the overturned hull of the capsized Kiwi 35 WingNuts couldn’t have asked for a better rescuer. The crew of Sociable, which hails from the Milwaukee Yacht Club, is a veteran one, with seven of its 12 members having at least five Mac races to their credit. Not a single member was a Mackinac rookie, and the crew successfully recovered a crewmember during an actual MOB situation just two years ago.

They were also well served by the Chicago YC’s safety requirements and long-standing emphasis on safety. The deaths are the first weather-related ones in the long history of the race, which serves as a testament to the club’s concern for competitors. Although the club’s attitude toward the seaworthiness of the boats taking part in the race is now undergoing scrutiny, its strict safety equipment requirements served the WingNuts crew well during their rescue.

For example, like every other boat in the fleet, Sociable was carrying a Lifesling for the express purpose of recovering victims in a crew-overboard situation. According to Arzbaecher, this piece of equipment was especially helpful in recovering a WingNuts crewmember who had been unable to climb onto the overturned hull and was becoming hypothermic.

Sociable was also carrying a portable spotlight, which Arzbaecher said was invaluable in helping with the rescue. “We’ve always kind of joked about all that safety stuff we have to have aboard for the Mac Race,” Arzbaecher said, “but I bet we used a third of what was on the checklist.”

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According to Arzbaecher, the Sociable crew also benefitted from an impromptu safety drill before the start. Arzbaecher described it as a “little game” in which his lead crewmember would call out the name of a piece of safety gear and the other crew would have to find it. “We went through about 20 things,” Arzbaecher said. “When we really needed those things, they came on deck fast.”

The end result—coupled with the fact that a score of boats immediately diverted from racing to come to WingNuts’ aid when Sociable put out a distress call on VHF—was a proud moment for sailors everywhere. In all, it took Sociable about 25 minutes to rescue the six sailors. Sociable then stood by and helped search for the other two members of the WingNuts crew until 0215 when it left the scene to return the six surviving crew to shore.

At one point, Arzbaecher’s crew considered sending someone into the water to see if they could rescue anybody possibly trapped under WingNuts’ hull, but then decided it would be too dangerous. Divers did not arrive on the scene until around 0800. Although Coast Guard rescue swimmers were in the area, the Coast Guard does not have any divers stationed at either its nearby Charlevoix station or its air station at Traverse City—which is why divers were enlisted from two nearby sheriff’s departments.

Sociable elected to look at something that was barely noticeable. They threw the race to the wind and decided to check things out,” said Charlevoix County Sheriff Don Schneider, whose department is doing a formal investigation into Morley and Bickel’s deaths. “They did a superb job.”

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