Storm Hits Chicago-to-Mackinac Race; 2 Sailors Lost

Text: T T
Sailing Community Rallies To Rescue as 103rd Challenge Is Marked by Misfortune
Karen Gould
and Alyssa Firth

The 103rd sailing of the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac was marked by tragedy when two sailors perished in a severe storm that brought high winds, heavy seas, torrential rain, and continuous lightning strikes to northern Lake Michigan around midnight Sunday, July 17. Thirty-one boats pulled out of the race.

Impact from the storm capsized WingNuts, a 35-foot sailboat from the Higgins Lake Boat Club owned by Mark Morley, 51, who died in Lake Michigan along with Suzanne Bickel, 40. Both are from Saginaw. The vessel carried eight crew members. Six were rescued.

Rescued sailors aboard WingNuts were Christopher Cummings, 16, of Grandville, John Dent, 50, of Ann Arbor, Stan Dent, 51, of Midland, Peter Morley, 47, of Midland, Stewart Morley, 15, of Midland, and Lee Purcell, 46, of Chicago.

The accident occurred about 13 nautical miles northwest of Charlevoix and 10 miles east of South Fox Island.

Crew aboard Sociable, a competing sailboat, notified the U.S. Coast Guard at 12:40 a.m. that WingNuts had capsized and the crew proceeded to rescue six of the vessel’s eight sailors. The Coast Guard also was alerted when personal locator beacons were activated aboard WingNuts. The rescue helicopter from Air Station Traverse City conducted a search of the water.

The Sociable crew called all boats to assist with the search. Ten other boats responded to help in search efforts for the two missing sailors.

Sociable is owned by Robert Arzbaecher of Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Mental just got in six hours late because they participated in the search,” said Mike Mayer of Chicago Monday, July 18, on Mackinac Island. “Congratulate them.”

Mr. Mayer, from the Chicago Yacht Club, sailed onboard Kashmir, a J11, and said crew from his vessel offered condolences to the families of the two sailors.

The Charlevoix County dive team recovered the bodies near the site of the capsized vessel at 8:44 a.m. Monday, July 18. The sailors had followed safety procedures and were wearing lifejackets and were tethered to the vessel. Their tethers, however, were tangled in sailing lines and one had to be cut by divers, said Leutentent Ken Griffith of Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie.

“It was an unfortunate thing,” he said of the circumstances of the deaths.

Mr. Morley, of Saginaw, was considered a seasoned sailor with 44 years of sailing experience, including six Chicago-to- Mackinac races and a sailing career of 85 qualifying races. Ms. Bickel, also of Saginaw, had sailed in two Chicago-to-Mackinac races and 16 qualifying races.

Severe weather had been predicted and two separate marine warnings were issued within minutes of each other prior to the storm hitting the area, said Bruce Smith, a meteorologist in the Gaylord office of the National Weather Service.

Arriving on the scene, Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw reported gusts of 45 knots (about 52 miles per hour) with sustained winds of 37 knots with waves running four to six feet, said Mr. Smith. At the northern Lake Michigan buoy, southwest of the Fox Islands recorded gusts at 45 knots. Other boats in the storm reported winds reaching 60 knots (69 miles per hour), continuous lightning, and hail.

“We were aware of the potential for strong storms and had been forecasting it for a few days in advance,” he said. “It’s just very unfortunate that the timing of this race coincided with the storm. It’s just a real tragedy.”

Of the 338 boats sailing in the 333-mile race from Navy Pier in Chicago to Windermere Point on Mackinac Island, 31 did not finish, a result of the rescue efforts, storm damage, and other reasons.

Crew members from many vessels arriving at Mackinac Island shared their storm stories and talked about taking head counts to ensure everyone remained onboard as rough seas hit the racers.

“Nobody got hurt,” said Jeff Kelley of Grand Haven, who sailed on Ticklish, a Super Ray 33 from Muskegon Yacht Club. “It was pretty dicey with more than 60 knots at one time.”

Ticklish crew were ready for an emergency and were wearing floatation devices, he said.

Mr. Mayer said his crew also was prepared for the storm.

“The worst of it hit about 12 miles from Gray’s Reef,” he recalled. “I was a little concerned it won’t be through by the time I got to Gray’s Reef, but it blew through. The visibility was zero. It was raining as hard as it can rain.”

Crew members were sent to the cabin, said Karl Brummel of Chicago.

“We were prepared for hail,” he said, although they did not get hit with it as others reported. “We heard on the marine radio that there was hail potentially coming and we sent most of our crew down into the cabin. Everyone nonessential went into the cabin.”

After WingNuts capsized, Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie coordinated search efforts and Air Station Traverse City helicopter crew also aided the operation.

These are the first weather-related deaths in the history of the Chicago-to-Mackinac Race that began in 1898, and has sailed annually since 1921, said Rachelle Treiber, communications manager with the Chicago Yacht Club. In the 1980s, skipper Bill Tripp of Allegan suffered a heart attack and died aboard his yacht, Aries, as it neared the finish line.

Spirits on Mackinac Island were dampened Monday morning as word spread of the tragedy.

American flags were lowered to half-staff around the Island, including at city buildings, Mackinac Island State Park sites including Fort Mackinac, Grand Hotel, other businesses, and all three ferry boat companies serving the Island.

Chicago Yacht Club Commodore Joseph Haas said in a release, “…we express our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the crew of WingNuts. The crew of this boat exemplified the spirit of the Chicago Mac that is steeped in tradition of family, friends, and passion for the water.”

An observance for those lost was held at Ste. Anne’s Church on Mackinac Island at 11 a.m. Tuesday, July 19. The Chicago Yacht Club addressed the tragedy during the awards ceremony the same day.

Some celebrating still took place by finishing boats, but celebrations were subdued and most sailors were shocked by the news of the deaths. Crew from many arriving vessels talked together, recalling their storm stories.

“We would normally be a lot more rowdy,” said Kashmir sailor Karl Brummel of Chicago.

The dangers of sailing are understood by all, say the sailors.

“We do this to have some fun and we understand the risks,” said Andy Hewes of Annapolis, Maryland, who sailed onboard Kashmir from the Chicago Yacht Club.

Bill Schanen from Port Washington, Wisconsin, who sailed on Main Street, a J145, said, “Of course, it’s a terrible tragedy. It’s just horrible. It’s sad for everybody here, really sad because everybody kind of knows it can happen.”

Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race is set to sail for Mackinac Island from Port Huron Saturday, July 23, and race officials said no one has pulled out of the race as a result of the tragedy, but sailors are talking about being safe and prepared.

“It is a terrible thing, indeed, to have loss of life in these great races,” said Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race spokesman Bruce Babiarz of BAB Associates. “From talking with sailors, the positive note is that there is now even a greater focus on safety equipment and procedures with skippers and crew. There are risks involved in offshore sailboat racing, and all need to be prepared to minimize those risks.”

2011-07-23 / Top News

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