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Independent Review of Fatal Yacht Race

by .. on 1 Aug 2011
A guest editorial from Sail-World USA's editor David Schmidt, who led our Sail-World official coverage of the Chicago Mackinac event.

By far, the biggest sailing news of the North American summer has been the tragic deaths of Mark Morley and Suzanne Bickel during the Chicago Yacht Club’s 2011 Race to Mackinac. Winds possibly exceeding 100 knots lashed the racing fleet on July 17 at roughly 2300 hours, EST, as lighting pulsated through the pitch-black air and torrential rain fire-hosed sailors.

During this melee, Morley’s WingNuts, a Kiwi 35, capsized. Six sailors were rescued by Sociable, but, horrifically, Morley and Bickel were lost.

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In the wake of this disaster, Joseph S. Haas, Commodore of the Chicago Yacht Club (CYC) has asked US SAILING to conduct an independent investigation of the events that occurred during this fateful storm.

On July 28, Gary Jobson, President of US SAILING, announced that a panel of world-class offshore sailors who are also heavily involved with US SAILING’s Safety At Sea seminars would execute this investigation. This panel is comprised of Chuck Hawley, Sheila McCurdy, Ralph Naranjo, and John Rousmaniere. According to the CYC’s recent press release, the independent panel will present its findings to US SAILING and the CYC in mid-to-late October.

Commodore Haas demonstrated excellent leadership during this crisis and quickly asked US SAILING to launch this independent investigation.

While never easy, positives can (eventually) come from awful situations such as this one. For example, following the disastrous 1979 Fastnet and the 1998 Sydney Hobart Race and its sub-sequential coronial inquiry, best-practice standards for long distance racing have been improved worldwide. It seems likely that US SAILING’s independent investigation will bring more improvements.

While these are the first sailing-related deaths to have taken place during the Race to Mackinac’s proud 103-year history, it’s important to recognize that weather patterns the world over seem to be intensifying with climate change.

Certainly the high-90s heat wave that was washing over the Midwest at the time of the tragedy compounded the storm’s already-terrible power, but freshwater sailors and race organisers worldwide must now be prepared to encounter beyond-cyclone-force winds such as the supercell-cum-meteorological juggernaut that rolled this fleet.

David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor
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