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A Sad Day on Mackinac Island

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 19 Jul 2011
WingNuts Event Media
Distance racing is truly a strange sport. Boats can start at similar times and—depending on their speed and the direction that they sail—experience completely different sets of conditions. Such was the case with this year’s Chicago—Mackinac Race.

As reported earlier, this was a case of the 'rich getting richer'. The boats that arrived on Mackinac Island early earned two important things: a great elapsed time and a ticket out of the horrendous storm that ravaged the fleet during this classic 333-mile distance race.

Sometime just before midnight (Mackinac time; 2300 hours Chicago time) a savage storm lashed the still-racing fleet with winds in excess of 50 knots; sheet lightning and lashing, horizontal rain and hail. Unlike most microbursts that are heavy on intensity and light on longevity, this particular storm had the legs to go for miles.

On the island, the storm lasted for well over an hour, with Main Street turning into a river.

For some boats, this intensity/durability combination proved disastrous. At least one boat was dismasted, many boats dropped out, and—horrificallyWingNuts, a Kiwi 35 capsized, putting all sailors in the soup.

Here’s the official press release from the Chicago Yacht Club:

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As of Monday, July 18, it has been confirmed by the U. S. Coast Guard and it is with great regret that the Chicago Yacht Club acknowledges the deaths of two sailors who were competing in the 2011 Chicago Yacht Club's Race to Mackinac.

A severe thunderstorm crossed Lake Michigan around midnight EDT last night. Wind gusts were reported at 52 knots with waves of 4-6 feet.

The Coast Guard was notified at 12:40 am via VHF radio by crew members from one of the competing boats 'Sociable' that another of the competing boats, WingNuts, had capsized in these severe conditions. Five sailors were pulled from the water on arrival to the scene and one other sailor was later rescued. The six sailors were rescued by the crew of Sociable.

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

The Sociable skipper called all boats for assistance on Channel 16 and ten boats in the vicinity immediately abandoned the race to join in search efforts for two missing sailors.

The two lost sailors were WingNuts skipper Mark Morley, 51, and Suzanne Bickel, 41, both from Saginaw, MI. Mark Morley had 44 years of sailing experience, including six Chicago Mackinacs and 85 qualifying races. Suzanne Bickel had sailed in two previous Chicago-Mackinac Races, with 16 qualifying races.

In a brief statement Commodore Joseph S. Haas said, 'On the behalf of the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, the Board of Directors and Flag Officers, 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.'

This tragic disaster is by the first sailing fatality in the Chicago-Mac’s proud, 103-year history. A very experienced crew aboard WingNuts over-powered by the storm’s ferocity.

Also by all accounts, Sociable crew performed miracle work by rescuing as many crewmembers as possible. Their seamanlike actions and their proper response to a horrific situation is the stuff of legend. The fact that the capsize happened almost on the rhumbline meant that there were another 10 boats standing by very quickly. The Coastguard were rapidly on the scene as well.

Our deepest condolences go out to the family’s of the WingNuts crew, and our heartfelt gratitude goes out to the Sociable crew. While no one EVER wants to find themselves in the position of Robert Arzbaecher and his Sociable crew, I can only hope that I would have handled the situation as competently and selflessly as Arzbaecher and company.

Please take a few quiet minutes today to consider the enormity of this situation, and fragility of the human experience.

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