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Tragedy and Triumph in the Chicago Mac Page 2

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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Of course, the skill and preparedness of WingNuts’ rescuers is one thing. The question of whether a boat like WingNuts should have been out there is another. Yet another is whether the tethers the WingNuts crew was wearing could have been the cause of Morley and Bickel’s deaths. Both victims were still harnessed to the overturned hull when their bodies were recovered by divers from the Charlevoix and Antrim County sheriff’s departments. According to Schneider, divers were able to unclip one of the victims, but the other had to be cut free with a knife.

Schneider added that the victims likely died of “head trauma,” as opposed to drowning, meaning the culprit was the impact of the capsize itself. It will be weeks before authorities release a formal report.

On July 28, US Sailing President Gary Jobson, at the request of the Chicago YC, appointed a panel to formally investigate the events leading up to the accident. This panel, which includes SAIL magazine’s electronics editor Ralph Naranjo, is scheduled to present a report to the Chicago YC in October and will look at all aspects of the accident—including the weather forecasts, the rescue equipment and the seaworthiness of WingNuts.

The review is in its infancy, but Naranjo said he will likely focus on the role tethers played in the accident. He also predicted the panel will probably recommend the Chicago YC play a larger roll in determining whether a boat is seaworthy for offshore events to come.

Currently, besides there is little besides the requirement that a boat have a minimum LOA of 26 feet and be “seaworthy.” The exception is any boat under 26 feet in the double-handed class, which must have and ORR positive stability index of 110.

According to Ron White, chief measurer for this year’s Chicago-Mac Race, the Chicago YC has excluded some vessels in the past, but “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.”

That, however, may soon change.


“The voice of reason says at least be informative about what the scantlings and stability should be of the vessels, and then make that either a recommendation or a requirement,” Naranjo said, adding that sailors aboard sport boats and other high-performance vessels might not realize just how tender these boats can be in heavy weather.

One thing that hasn’t been questioned is the seamanship of the boat’s skipper, Mark Morley, 51, Bickel, 41, or the rest of the WingNuts crew. This was neither Morley nor Bickel’s first Chicago Mackinac Race, and by all accounts Morley and Bickel, both from Saginaw, Michigan, were experienced, responsible sailors.

In a testament to Morley’s concern for safety, the entire crew was equipped with personal locator beacons, which are not required by the Chicago YC’s safety standards. Morley had been monitoring weather reports and had his mainsail down and the entire crew harnessed to the boat in anticipation of the storm.

The pair’s tragic death prompted an outpouring of support and condolences from sailors and non-sailors alike in their home state.

As for WingNuts and the weather on the night of July 17-18, there is no doubt they were both at the extreme.

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