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Tragedy During The 2011 Mackinac Race : 2 Sailors Drown When Boat Capsizes

Updated on July 21, 2011
The S/V Wingnut before the race.
The S/V Wingnut before the race.

This last weekend brought us a stark reminder of just how fragile life can be at the hands of mother nature. Two sailors drowned and their bodies recovered this Monday after their boat, S/V Wingnut capsized in a sudden storm during the annual Chicago to Mackinac race held by the Chicago Yacht Club.

Skipper Mark Morley, 51, and crew member Suzanne Bickel, 41, were both experienced sailors when high winds overcame their 35-foot racing yacht early Monday morning. Morley had 44 years of sailing experience and had competed in 6 previous Mackinac races. Bickel was no stranger to the sea either, having competed in 2 previous Mackinac races as well as numerous other events. This unfortunate episode should serve as a reminder to all that brave the sea that, despite all our experience and knowledge, mother nature still holds the upper-hand and should always deserve our respect.

The Chicago to Mackinac course.
The Chicago to Mackinac course.

The Capsize of S/V Wingnut

The Chicago to Mackinac race is considered the oldest fresh water sailboat race in the world. Started in 1898, this amateur race pits sailors against the amazing waters and weather of Lake Michigan in a 289.4 nautical miles (333 miles) course from Chicago to Mackinac Island. This years race marks the 103rd year of the Mackinac Race.

Until this year, this long standing race has never seen the death of a sailor.

S/V Wingnut was underway with 8 crew members onboard when a violent thunderstorm formed over the lake. 52 knot winds with gusts up to 60 were reported. The sea grew to 4 to 6 foot waves and, because of the geography of Lake Michigan, the waves there can become incredibly steep.

Around 12:20am Monday morning, July 18th, the Coast Guard received word that the S/V Wingnut had capsized. According to reports, all 8 crew members were strapped in for safety and wearing life jackets at the time of the event. 6 of the crew members were able to unhook themselves and cling onto the overturned hull of the Wingnut until they could be rescued.

The S/V Sociable, another sailboat competing in the race, was first on scene and rescued the 6 survivors. In all, 7 boats abandoned the race to aid in the rescue operation.

At 7:45am the bodies of the two missing sailors were recovered by the coast guard. It is unclear if they had been wearing life jackets at the time of the capsize, had been knocked unconscious, or had simply been unable to unhook themselves from the boat after she was knocked down.

All 6 of the other survivors are in good health.

The S/V Wingnut the morning after a thunderstorm with 60mph winds capsized her.
The S/V Wingnut the morning after a thunderstorm with 60mph winds capsized her.

Concerns About Safety

As far as anyone can tell - the crew of the S/V Wingnut were following all the proper safety procedures at the time of the accident. All of the recovered crew were wearing life jackets equipped with emergency beacons. Although it is unclear if Morley and Bickel were also wearing life jackets, it is most likely that they, also, were wearing all the appropriate safety gear.

The crew was also strapped in to the boat, which is another common safety practice during rough weather. This prevents the crew from being washed overboard by a large wave or slipping and falling over the side. All of these harnesses are normally equipped with a quick release mechanism in the case of a capsize.

It is also unlikely that the skipper, Morley, with all his years of experience was pushing the boat to hard and simply didn't reduce his sail area when the winds picked up. Most experienced sailors always practice safety over speed, and with 44 years under his belt, Morley was most likely running with an appropriate amount of sail.

This event should remind us all that whenever we go to sea we are at the mercy of Mother Nature and the elements. No matter how much knowledge and experience one has, going to sea in a small sailboat is always a risk.

My heart goes out to the families and friends of the sailors lost. May their memory and courage inspire sailors for generations to come.

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      Danforth Smith 6 years ago

      Upon looking at the hull shape, I would have to suspect stability concerns. The tumblehome and sheer built into vessel by shipwrights of the past was not just for kicks.