In response to a US Sailing-led inquiry into the deaths of two sailors in the 2011 Race to Mackinac, the race selection committee expects to re-evaluate its participant selection process and examine stability requirements for boats.
“Maybe the committee should put a little more weight into the boat’s suitability, as well as the [experience of the] crew,” says Joseph S. Haas, commodore of the Chicago Yacht Club, which holds the annual race.
The committee will seek the advice of a naval architect or sailing safety expert to help it make any necessary changes to the stability requirements, says Lou Sandoval, chairman of the 2012 race. “We’re coming up with an action plan,” Sandoval says. “The US Sailing report was very complimentary in a lot of the things we do, but it also pointed out some areas we might want to look into.”
Whatever action the yacht club decides to take will be done before the next race, which is scheduled for July 21, Haas says. That means the club must have the guidelines and parameters for selection nailed down by February, he says, because the notice of race is typically made in late February or early March.
The capsizing of WingNuts, a Kiwi 35, marked the first fatal accident in the history of the Race to Mackinac, which begins in Chicago’s Monroe Harbor and ends at Mackinac Island in Michigan. To participate, sailors must be invited by the yacht club. WingNuts was one of eight boats in the Kiwi 35 class, designed by O.H. Rodgers and built in 1984-85 of fiberglass-Kevlar sandwich at Kiwi Boats in Plant City, Fla.
The sailors who died were WingNuts skipper Mark Morley, 51, and Suzanne Makowski-Bickel, 41, both of Saginaw, Mich. The crew of a competing sailboat, Sociable, rescued the other six crewmembers from WingNuts. The survivors were Christopher Cummings, 16; John Dent, 50; Stan Dent, 51; Peter Morley, 47; Stewart Morley, 15; and Lee Purcell, 46.
WingNuts flipped in a violent thunderstorm with 4- to 6-foot seas and 50-mph winds about 13 nautical miles northwest of Charlevoix, Mich., and 10 miles east of South Fox Island. The crew of Sociable reported the capsize to the Coast Guard at 12:40 a.m. July 18. About eight hours later, rescue divers found Morley and Makowski-Bickel.
At Haas’ request, US Sailing president Gary Jobson appointed a five-member independent review panel of offshore sailing experts to determine why the 35-foot sloop capsized during the July race, with the deaths of two experienced sailors. The panel released a 70-page report in late October that said WingNuts should not have been allowed to participate in the 333-mile race across Lake Michigan, one of the longest freshwater races in the world.
“WingNuts was a highly inappropriate boat for a race of this duration — overnight, without safety boats — and in an area known to have frequent violent thunderstorms,” the report says in its list of 19 findings. “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.”
The yacht club has been receptive to the panel’s findings. “I was supportive of the report and have embraced the findings, and I am going to seriously evaluate the recommendations for implementation,” Haas says. “The entire interest for us is to make the race as safe as possible.”
Equipment not to blame
Chuck Hawley, of Santa Cruz, Calif., was chairman of the review panel. He has done extensive research into man-overboard recovery, life raft design, anchor design and storm tactics. Other panel members were Sheila McCurdy, of Middletown, R.I.; Ralph Naranjo, of Annapolis, Md.; John Rousmaniere, of New York City; and Leif R. Sigmond Jr., of Riverwoods, Ill.
Their report includes recommendations covering the process of evaluating potential raceboats and their crews, stability, safety regulations, training and disaster planning. The panel advised the yacht club to implement a minimum stability index for its fleets and standards for boat suitability and seaworthiness.
Haas says the club reviewed WingNuts’ stability, but it did not raise concerns at the time. “There were actually boats that had a stability rating that was less than WingNuts,” Haas says.
Local authorities completed their own inquiry. Charlevoix County (Mich.) Sheriff Don Schneider says the coroner’s report states that the primary cause of both deaths was blunt force trauma to the head. The secondary cause was drowning. Schneider says he believes the weather ultimately led to the fatalities. “I don’t have the expertise to pinpoint any other causes,” he says.
But Schneider did add that, in his investigation, he became aware of the strengths and the drawbacks of inflatable PFDs and tethers. “Both have the potential to trap boaters under capsized hulls,” Schneider wrote in a summary of his investigation. “The tether is an excellent piece of equipment. The user needs to know the dangers that may cause them concern under certain conditions. Those concerns could be easily erased by a simple knife, conveniently secured to one’s self.”
Schneider says Makowski-Bickel’s tether and inflated PFD could have been a factor in her death. “When my diver found the woman, her head and shoulders were … still under water,” Schneider says. “She was still tethered to the boat and needed to be cut loose.” Makowski-Bickel was carrying a knife, he says.
However, Schneider says the role, if any, that the tether-and-PFD combination played in the sailor’s death will remain unclear because the primary cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. Makowski-Bickel may not have had a chance to escape because she could have been unconscious or already have perished, he says.
The eight sailors aboard WingNuts were wearing tethers and inflatable PFDs. The panel’s report states that, after the capsizing, crewmember Stan Dent found Makowski-Bickel submerged under the stern and unresponsive. He was unable to free her from the tether. Dent moved to the transom and cut Peter Morley free before going back to Makowski-Bickel. But Dent was unable to see her in the water this time.
Now that he was free, Morley was able to work his way around the boat in search of Makowski-Bickel and his brother, Mark. He found Makowski-Bickel under water and lifeless. He did not find his brother.
The US Sailing panel found that neither inflatable life jackets nor tethers contributed to the deaths. Its report states that during the capsize, “Mark and Suzanne were thrown together and then to the end of their tethers onto the leeward wing, suffering injuries on the back of Mark’s head and on Suzanne’s face. The other wing may have come down onto them. They were very likely unconscious before the boat settled upside-down.”
The panel did recommend that the US Sailing Safety at Sea Committee “conduct a study of different tether/life jacket/harness designs to determine if an optimum combination of security and ease of release can be found.”
“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,” the report states. “One tether of one of the surviving members lacked the required chest-end shackle, and, therefore, it became necessary for another sailor to cut the tether to set [that crewmember] free from underneath the capsized vessel.”
‘A little more scrutiny’
The panel of experts tapped naval architect and associate US Sailing offshore director Jim Teeters for technical expertise. “The vessel’s stability characteristics were a primary cause of this tragic incident and a major contributory factor in the deaths of crewmembers Morley and Makowski-Bickel,” the report says in its “Vessel Design Comments,” which were written by Teeters and panel member Naranjo. “The extreme deck beam necessitated by the wing-like appendages negatively impacted the vessel’s stability, and it’s the panel’s opinion that the vessel’s design characteristics made the Kiwi 35 an inappropriate boat for such a long-distance race.”
Jobson says the panel did a fine job of breaking down all aspects of the race to come away with information and recommendations that should help racing organizations improve safety practices. “Our group worked hard and did a good job, but it is not the end of the story,” Jobson says. “We need to have these recommendations — and maybe others — put into practice. That is the important next step.”
All race committees need to be diligent to make sure the proper boats are participating and that they’re carrying the proper safety equipment for the conditions they may encounter, Jobson says. There were 355 boats and about 3,500 sailors in last year’s Race to Mackinac. “I think the lesson here is that all race organizers have to be careful not to let everybody and his brother participate and have a little more scrutiny,” he says.
Hawley, who is also vice president of product information for West Marine, says some sailors at the website www.sailinganarchy.com have criticized the report for underplaying extreme weather as a primary cause of the tragedy. “There is, in fact, a great deal of information in the report about the weather conditions,” he says. “The point is that strong thunderstorm cells like that have occurred during many Mac races and many passages on Lake Michigan. They are common occurrences — maybe not 60 knots, but it’s an area that is known for strong summer thunderstorm activity.”
The WingNuts crew was a tight-knit bunch of mostly Michigan sailors, according to the panel. The boat was co-owned by the two Morley brothers and first cousins Stan Dent (Peter Morley’s brother-in-law) and John Dent. Mark Morley had done five Mackinac races, 14 Port Huron-Macs and more than 80 qualifiers for the Race to Mackinac. Makowski-Bickel was sailing in her third Mackinac race and had done 16 qualifiers and a trans-Atlantic passage.
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This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.