In the wake of this summer’s fatal accident in the 103rd Race to Mackinac, US Sailing has convened a panel of experts to determine why the Kiwi 35, WingNuts, capsized and two of its eight crewmembers died.“Their charge is to, as best they can, give us a report on exactly what happened,” says Gary Jobson, the president of US Sailing, who appointed the five-member independent review panel. “What harness did they have? Did it have a quick-release on it? Were they actually strapped in? Did somebody hit their head? What are the results of the autopsy? What about those kinds of boats — should they be in these races or not?”
The capsize was the first fatal accident in the history of the Chicago Yacht Club event, which runs from Chicago’s Monroe Harbor to Mackinac Island in Michigan. The deceased sailors are WingNuts skipper Mark Morley, 51, and Suzanne Bickel, 41, both from Saginaw, Mich. The crew of the competing sailboat Sociable recovered 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.
The accident occurred in 4- to 6-foot seas and 50-mph winds just after midnight July 17 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. The two sailors who died were found about eight hours later by rescue divers.
The yacht club contacted US Sailing about a study shortly after the accident, and Jobson was quick to assemble a team of experts who are working without pay. The study began in early August and is expected to be completed before US Sailing’s annual meeting Oct. 27-29.
“We’re well under way but have a lot of areas that need additional investigation,” says the panel chairman, Chuck Hawley, who has done extensive research into man-overboard recovery, life raft design, anchor design and storm tactics. (He is also vice president of product information for West Marine.) “But we are in a fact-accumulation mode. We have been conducting interviews with race participants. We are in contact with NOAA to collect weather information. We have sent questionnaires to the participating skippers and are in the process of tabulating the results.”
The panel, which includes 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., is also analyzing the design characteristics of the Kiwi 35, says Hawley, of Santa Cruz., Calif. “The boat is very beamy, 14 feet, with deck extensions designed to get the crew weight away from the center of gravity to push the CG to one side to balance the sails,” says Hawley, one of five moderators of US Sailing’s Safety at Sea Seminars. “It has a relatively small keel, and as a result, it is dependent on crew weight for stability.”
The boat’s behavior after the capsize also will be an issue, says Hawley. “After the boat inverts … brings in the issue of entrapment, where buoyancy may be a negative and your secure attachment to the boat could be a negative,” he says.
The panel is also tasked with identifying potential improvements to race rules and procedures to keep sailors safer, and comparing the Race to Mackinac’s regulations and safety procedures with those of US Sailing, Jobson says. The panel is using other racing accident investigations, such as the inquiry into the 1979 Fastnet in which 15 sailors perished, to guide its probe, says Jobson, who was the skipper of the winning Tenacious in the Fastnet.
“A lot of good came out of that [inquiry],” Jobson says. “Sailing is a lot safer today, and a lot was learned. If we could come close to replicating that, it would be really good.”
US Sailing is conducting a similar study into the accident that killed 14-year-old Olivia Constants. She died June 23 during sailing lessons in Maryland’s Severn River aboard a Club 420. Published reports say she became trapped under water because her harness got tangled in the rigging.
The Mackinac accident occurred about a week after Jobson decided to launch the Constants probe. “I thought if we’re going to be looking at the Olivia Constants accident, we ought to look at this one, too,” Jobson says. “They are racing incidents. There are lessons to be learned for junior sailing safety and big-boat or long-distance racing, and it’s very important for us to be involved.”
Adds Hawley: “While the loss of two lives is extremely unfortunate, events like this race inevitably lead to greater knowledge about what techniques, gear and boat designs work in extreme conditions. If somebody comes up with something that is more effective, we ought to consider teaching that.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.