Tragedy and Triumph in the Chicago Mac Page 3

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

Despite its 35-foot length, WingNuts carries just 1,000 pounds of ballast at the end of a high-aspect 7-foot keel. The boat’s published 2,850-pound displacement gives it a displacement-length ratio of 55, making it light for its LOA. By comparison, a 34ft 6in J/105 displaces 7,750 pounds and has a D/L of 135. A typical performance cruiser has a D/L of 180 or more.

Similarly, WingNuts’ published sail area-displacement ratio is 36, compared to 24 for a J/105. A typical performance cruiser will have an SA/D of under 20.


Then there are WingNuts’ “wings,” extensions of the deck and topsides that create a massive 14-foot beam on a hull with a very narrow beam at the waterline. On the one hand, this configuration creates a boat that is both tender and highly dependent on crew weight to stand up to a press of sail. On the other, it creates a tremendous amount of surface area to catch both wind and seas when the boat is heeling. It also creates a very wide platform with high form stability that is difficult to right again if it turns turtle.

According to Arzbaecher, what may have done in WingNuts was a combination of extreme wind and seas—not just the waves from the storm itself, but residual waves from the 20-knot-plus winds that had been blowing for hours earlier.

Lost in the many accounts that came out in the immediate wake of the capsize is mention of the strong southerlies that preceded it and built up swells of 4-6 feet. In fact, Arzbaecher said he had taken down his spinnaker well before the storm not because of the impending bad weather, but to keep Sociable from broaching in the dark in strong winds and heavy seas.

Arzbaecher said that on their way back to shore the WingNuts crew told him the boat had been knocked down plenty of times before, but had always righted again. On the night of the capsize, the boat actually survived the storm’s first gusts—as is the case with many Great Lakes storms, there was an initial blast of wind followed by a lull and then another, stronger blast—but then the combination of wind and waves proved too much in the second.

“My guess is that [WingNuts] got knocked on their side and then a wave just got under the wing and it put them over,” he said, although he emphasized that he is not a naval architect and can only speculate as to what actually happened.

Naval architect Dave Gerr, a regular SAIL contributor and director of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology, agreed. “It’s entirely possible that the leeward wing did trip the boat up. In these kinds of conditions, the leeward wing is going to tend to catch the water and the windward wing is going to be a sail,” Gerr said. “In 50 knots of wind that’s a lot of force.”

“A boat like that is also dependent on crew weight. The problem in severe storm conditions is that you can’t keep people out there on that wing,” Gerr added. “It’s not that WingNuts is a bad boat. It’s just not suitable for offshore work.”

That having been said, the Chicago YC’s White, who raced aboard multihull in this year’s Mac Race, pointed out that WingNuts was not the only boat in the fleet that would have remained upside down in the event of a capsize. “The extended deck structures, or wings, are certainly unusual feature that contributed to the boat’s inability to self-right. However the wings also make the boat virtually unsinkable due to [their] buoyancy,” he said. “We have also had multihulls capsize in the race without loss of life. These episodes, just as the WingNuts incident, have triggered extensive review of the rules where appropriate.”

As for the conditions themselves, even by Great Lakes standards, the storm was a bad one. Reports of maximum wind speeds varied from the mid-50s to over 100 knots and all reports agree that the combination of rain, wind and lightning was almost unprecedented.

“It was the worst 15 minutes that I’ve ever experienced on a Mac,” said Joe Londrigan, skipper of the J/109 Realt na Mara, where crewmember Greg Alm captured some dramatic onboard video at the height of the storm. “There were about 15 minutes where it was full-on.”

“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 the J/111 Mental, the fourth boat on the scene of the capsize

“There was more wind than I’ve ever experienced in 35 years of racing all over the Great Lakes and on the oceans, and I’ve been through tons of squalls. This thing was different,” said Peter Wenzler of the North American 40 Fast Tango, which recorded sustained winds of over 100 knots just a few miles from WingNuts’ location. “The water was vaporized, pulverized. In the cockpit there was water up to my knees, and it was white. And the water outside the boat was also white. I was standing on the side of the cockpit, driving, crouched within the wheel frame, with my head ducking below the windward side of the cockpit so that I could see the instruments.”

Still, while the storm may have been an especially bad one, it was not that unusual for the upper Great Lakes, nor did it come without warning.

“The line of storms that came across was not that atypical for this time of year,” said Justin Arnott with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s office in Gaylord, Michigan. According to Arnott, gusts of 100mph or more would have been abnormal, but the 40-65mph winds recorded when the storm came ashore in Charlevoix, Michigan, a few miles from the capsize, are typical.

“For any individual sailor to see [those winds] is unusual, but for us to have to deal with that as an office, it’s something we deal with every year,” Arnott said. He added that 2011 has been a relatively “normal” summer overall, with his office issuing 79 special marine warnings of the kind it issued in the hours preceding the storm on July 17.

Whatever the cause—weather, boat design, or a combination of factors yet to be identified—the Chicago YC appears sincere in its efforts to get to the bottom of this tragedy. The reputations of those sailors making up US Sailing’s review panel, which also includes West Marine’s Chuck Hawley, Cruising Club of America Commodore Sheila McCurdy, veteran sailor and author John Rousmaniere, and Chicago YC member Leif Sigmond, is unimpeachable.

With luck, the long-term response to the WingNuts tragedy will echo that of Sociable’s—seamanlike, effective and a testament to both the sport and tradition of sailing and those who make it what it is.


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