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US SAILING Inquiry into CYC Race to Mackinac capsize and fatalities

by C. Hawley, J. Rousmaniere, R. Naranjo & S.McCurdy on 30 Oct 2011
WingNuts .. .
The 103rd Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac experienced two tragic deaths and now an inquiry into the fatalities has been released. The inquiry was conducted by a review panel which was appointed by US Sailing on July 28, 2011.

Introduction and Mission: Sailing is a remarkably safe sport in large part because of the caring of its close-knit community. When a sailor dies, all sailors mourn and do what they can to see that such an accident does not happen again.

After two sailors’ lives were lost during the recent Chicago Yacht Club-Race to Mackinac, the Chicago Yacht Club, the race’s organizer, asked US Sailing to conduct an independent study of what happened. On July 28, US Sailing appointed the Independent Review Panel for the 2011 Chicago-Mackinac Race, and directed it to consider what lessons might be learned and also to make recommendations.

The members of the Independent Review Panel are (Chairman) Chuck Hawley, Santa Cruz, CA.; Sheila McCurdy, Middletown, R.I.; Ralph Naranjo, Annapolis, Md.; and John Rousmaniere, New York, N.Y. Each is an experienced offshore sailor, a longtime member of US Sailing’s Safety-at-Sea Committee, and a moderator of US Sailing-certified Safety at Sea Seminars.

Technical support was provided by Ron Trossbach, another Safety at Sea Moderator, Dan Nowlan, Offshore Director at US Sailing, and Jim Teeters, Associate Offshore Director of US Sailing. The Chicago Yacht Club appointed one if its members, Leif Sigmond Jr., to serve as the club’s liaison to the panel.

The Independent Review Panel presented its report at US Sailing’s annual general meeting in Annapolis on October 29, 2011.

A summary is covered below:

The Chicago Yacht Club Mackinac Committee (CYCMC), a committee of the Chicago Yacht Club, held the 103rd Chicago Yacht Club-Race to Mackinac Island with starts on July 15 and July 16, 2011. The 333 mile race is one of the longest annual freshwater races, and most boats take approximately two days to finish. Among the over 345 boats entered in the race was WingNuts, a Kiwi 35 sport boat, sailed by a crew of eight, four of whom were co-owners.

WingNuts was an extreme boat in many respects, including being very light for her 35’ length, but her most differentiating feature was her flared deck which resulted in a beam of 14’ combined with a narrow beam at the waterline.

This, combined with her large sail plan, made her exciting to sail but also a very tender boat.

The crew of WingNuts was very experienced, most of them having raced in numerous Chicago-Mac races or similar races, and most of them having extensive experience on WingNuts. In fact, this was the fourth time that several of them had sailed WingNuts in the Chicago-Mac.

Prior to the start, the weather was predicted to change from a relatively pleasant southwesterly breeze to the likelihood of thunderstorms on Sunday afternoon and night. The fleet, including WingNuts, experienced deteriorating conditions on Sunday as predicted, and the crew prepared for the storm by ensuring that the crew was wearing personal safety gear and by reducing sail area. As the winds increased, the crew dropped the main and partially furled the number three genoa. Around 2300 CDT, WingNuts encountered a 'wall of wind' in a powerful cell, with wind speed over 50 knots for several minutes.

The wind also veered in direction and WingNuts began to capsize, but instead of hesitating at ninety degrees as she had in the past, WingNuts continued to roll over until she capsized. Six of the crew members, including one who was below decks at the time of the capsize, were able to free themselves from the vessel but Mark Morley and Suzanne Makowski-Bickel were unable to free themselves and died as a result of head injuries and drowning.

The 40-foot Sociable, one of her competitors, aided by the personal lights and whistles of the surviving crew on WingNuts, rescued the six crew members and took them to Charlevoix, MI. The Coast Guard assisted in the search for the missing sailors with helicopters, 25’ and 41’ vessels, and the ice breaker USCGC Mackinaw.


1) The race deserves its reputation for being well-run with a tactically and navigationally challenging course that is subject to variable and occasionally severe weather.

2) WingNuts was a highly inappropriate boat for a race of this duration, over night, without safety boats, and in an area known to have frequent violent thunderstorms. Her capable crew and preparation could not make up for the fact that she had too little stability, which led to her being 'blown over' by a severe gust.

3) Strong thunderstorms and violent cells are relatively common in the area traversed by the race course in July. Many sailors expressed that while this was a strong series of cells, they had been in previous Macs with similar conditions. The intensity of the lightning was mentioned frequently as been exceptional.

4) The Selection Committee of the Chicago Yacht Club-Race to Mackinac Island used a combination of the experience of the crew and the characteristics of the vessel to determine whether a vessel would be invited to enter the race.

5) Boats are required to have an ORR handicap measurement certificate. This document includes two measurements of stability: Limit of Positive Stability (LPS) and Stability Index (SI). Both values were considered by the Safety Committee as indications of the boat’s suitability for entering the race. Using the information from the measurement certificate, WingNuts did not stand out from the rest of the fleet in either LPS or SI, although she was among the vessels with the lowest stability metrics.

6) The Safety Committee relied on self-inspection for the majority of the boats in the race. Some boats requested a pre-race inspection on a voluntary basis. A small number of boats were inspected at the finish for a limited number of items, the identity of which is kept secret so that competitors are encouraged to have all items.

7) The fleet was equipped with GPS 'trackers' which transmitted the location of each vessel on an hourly basis. Due to a human failure by the supplier, this system was rendered inoperative on Saturday night, and the benefit that might have been derived in tracking the vessels that came to the assistance of WingNuts was lost. We do not believe that the failure of the tracking system delayed the rescue of the WingNuts crew or impacted their safety.

8) The weather that WingNuts encountered was forecast prior to the start of the race, and virtually all boats tracked the weather system as it moved towards the fleet using observations and electronic means. Many vessels apparently underestimated the force of the winds in the 'purple' or 'red' colored areas on the Doppler radar plots and were caught with too much sail up, or misjudged the speed at which the cells were moving towards their positions.

9) We believe that the Mackinac Safety Regulations, that governed the safety equipment requirements for the race, worked well for the fleet. They appear to have met their objective of clarity, simplicity, and acceptance by the racers.

10) During a thunderstorm with winds in the range of 50 knots and waves of 4-6 feet, WingNuts was blown over by high winds and capsized. Five members of the eight-man crew were able to release themselves from the vessel, one was able to swim out of the cabin and to the surface, and two were unable to do so and died. The Coroner’s report lists head injuries as the cause of death. The two fatalities very likely occurred within a few minutes of the capsize.

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11) While WingNuts was well prepared and met the majority of the safety requirements, one harness tether did not have a chest-end shackle ('snaphook') and therefore did not meet the requirement of being detachable at the 'chest' end of the tether. This hindered a surviving crew member from releasing himself from the vessel after the capsize. The victims, however, were wearing compliant tethers.

12) The crew of WingNuts handled their boat with excellent seamanship, shortening sail when appropriate, and setting up a strong system of jacklines on which to hook safety harnesses. The victims were attached to the boat via a central jackline in the cockpit and two jackines on the side decks. This allowed them to fall a considerable distance, and also restricted their ability to reach beyond the edge of the deck of the boat after the boat capsized.

13) There is no evidence that buoyancy of the inflatable life jackets worn by the crew inhibited their ability to escape from the inverted cockpit. Except for the two fatalities, who were helpless due to their injuries, all sailors were able to swim out. One sailor's tether made exit from the underside of the inverted hull difficult because it tangled in lines after it was released, but the problem was quickly solved and the person in that tether, Stan Dent, later stated that he would again clip on with a safety harness, and he would also wear an automatic inflating PFD. 'If you’re on a boat that you are 95 percent confident will not turtle, by all means that is the way to go.'

14) This incident generated discussions on the role of safety harnesses, inflatable life jackets, tethers, and jacklines. The general theme of these comments was that such personal gear may pose a danger to sailors because of entrapment (either due to buoyancy or an inability to release oneself from the vessel). The panel, however, concludes that well-designed personal safety equipment of these types, including tethers that can be quickly unclipped from the harness when under load, did not endanger the crew of WingNuts and are desirable in the vast majority of situations.

15) The use of the SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker was instrumental in alerting the family and the Coast Guard about the incident. Within a few minutes of activation, the family members and the Coast Guard were aware that two SPOT devices had been activated, and the also knew the location of the incident. This worked well, despite the problems with various vessel and land-based communications problems brought on by the intense storm.

16) In addition to the SPOT, other non-traditional means of communication were used during the storm and rescue, including telephone calls over cell phones, SMS messages, and FaceBook.

17) The crew of the vessel Sociable acted competently in their rescue of the WingNuts crew, and provided a command structure for the other vessels that dropped out of the race to come to WingNuts’s aid.

18) The Coast Guard responded appropriately and as quickly as the conditions allowed and in compliance with their routines and orders. Assets were sent from Sector Sault Ste. Marie, Station Charlevoix and Air Station Traverse City stations arriving as soon as two hours after the capsize including three MH-65C Dolphin helicopters, a 41’ utility boat (UTB) and two 25’ Transportable Port Security Boat (TPSB), in addition to the 240’ Icebreaker USCGC Mackinaw which was accompanying the fleet.

19) A majority of the fleet handled the conditions with little or no significant damage. While four other race boats had onboard emergencies, and many boats reported being knocked down for minutes at a time, only WingNuts was capsized by the high winds.

Written by Chuck Hawley, John Rousmaniere, Ralph Naranjo and Sheila McCurdy with Technical Support from Ron Trossbach, Dan Nowlan, and Jim Teeters will provide more detailed coverage of this report over the coming days.

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