'A life jacket, a whistle and a light. My God, how simple it can be? But that’s what it was,' the words of Robert Arzbaecher, receiving the Hanson Rescue Medal in Chicago this week. During the awards ceremony Arzbaecher marveled at how effective basic mandatory equipment was, including the simple Lifesling that many yachts have onboard hoping they will never have to use it.
Sociable crew receive the Hanson Rescue Medal
There has been much publicity about the suitability of the yacht Wingnuts, which capsized and did not right itself, to take part in the 103rd Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac on Lake Michigan on the night of July 17-18, 2011. Two lives were lost in the incident, which occurred during a storm. US Sailing has awarded an Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal to the crew of Sociable for their rescue of six sailors from the capsized yacht.
The Medal was awarded on Saturday, November 5 to Sociable’s skipper, Robert Arzbaecher (Brookfield Wis.), and his crew at the race’s awards dinner at the Chicago Yacht Club.
The presentation was made by Janet Baxter, former President of US Sailing. Sociable’s crew included Brian Nagle, Matt Younkle, Greg Adams, David Patrick, Pete Duecker, Adam Flanders, Chris Miotke and Max Riesing.
Sociable received three nominations for the Hanson Rescue Medal, including the surviving crew of WingNuts, Commodore Joseph S. Haas of the Chicago Yacht Club, and from a Florida sailor who was part of Sociable’s crew during the rescue.
What happened from the perspective of Sociable:
Late on the night of July 17, Sociable, a Beneteau 40.7 out of Milwaukee Yacht Club, was sailing in a large group of Chicago-Mackinac Race boats off Charlevoix, Mich. when they were buffeted by severe squalls with wind speeds over 40 knots, steep seas, blinding rain and frequent sheet lightning. At approximately 11:15 p.m. CDT, navigator Brian Adams heard the faint sound of a whistle. Alerted that something might be wrong, the crew soon spotted lights about half a mile away. Dropping out of the race, Arzbaecher sailed toward the lights and found a competitor, the Kiwi 35 sloop WingNuts, capsized and upside down. Five sailors were on her upturned bottom holding on to the keel and waving lights, and a sixth person was in the water, hanging on to the rudder, most were wearing inflatable life jackets.
Arzbaecher would marvel at how effective this basic, mandatory equipment was at saving the sailors’ lives. 'A life jacket, a whistle and a light. My God, how simple it can be? But that’s what it was,' Arzbaecher said.
'This experience really re-energized our focus on safety. You can never stop learning about safety and never stop thinking about what could go wrong in these situations.'
The Sociable crew deployed the boat’s Lifesling rescue device and dragged it around WingNuts. A race requirement for all entries, the Lifesling allowed the rescuers to get a buoyant connection to the distressed sailors without entangling Sociable in the web of lines and gear floating around the capsized hull. The six sailors were pulled to safety one or two at a time to the Sociable’s transom, where they were helped on board.
'The Lifesling worked very well and the boat’s scoop transom worked similar to a swim platform on the back,' recalled one victim, Stanton Dent. Sociable’s crew worked as a team under skipper Bob Arzbaecher’s supervision to get the WingNuts crew safely out of the water without endangering Sociable in extremely challenging conditions.
Two of WingNuts’ crew were submerged under the boat and had died from severe head trauma suffered during the accident. Their bodies were removed by divers after dawn on Monday.
All the WingNuts' people were chilled after almost an hour of exposure to 70-degree water and were given blankets and dry clothes. One was hypothermic and was treated by crewmembers Amy Marshall and Cathy Patrick.
While the rescues were being made, navigator Adams was below making VHF-FM radio contact with other boats and the Coast Guard, which had also been alerted by signals from two SPOT Messaging Devices that had been triggered by WingNuts crew members.
The Coast Guard sent a helicopter and a 41-foot boat to the scene, and later sent an icebreaker, a small boat, and two other helicopters. At least 23 racing boats stopped racing and stood by WingNuts. A U.S. Coast Guard official familiar with the rescue has said of the Sociable crew, 'They’re one of the heroes.'
The Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal:
The Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal is awarded by US Sailing’s Safety-at-Sea Committee to any person who rescues or endeavors to rescue any other person from drowning, shipwreck, or other perils at sea within the territorial waters of the U.S., or as part of a sailboat race or voyage that originated or stopped in the U.S.
Since it was established in 1990 by friends of the late Mr. Hanson, an ocean-racing sailor from the Chesapeake Bay, the Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal has been presented to more than 165 boats. Any individual or organization may submit a nomination for a Hanson Rescue Medal.
About US Sailing:
The United States Sailing Association (US SAILING), the national governing body for sailing, provides leadership, integrity, and growth for the sport in the United States. Founded in 1897 and headquartered in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, US SAILING is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization. US SAILING offers training and education programs for instructors and race officials, supports a wide range of sailing organizations and communities, issues offshore rating certificates, and provides administration and oversight of competitive sailing across the country, including National Championships and the US Sailing Team AlphaGraphics. For more information, please visit us at www.ussailing.org.