Yacht club promises inquiry into fatal race mishap
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — The organization that sponsors an annual sailing race from Chicago to Mackinac Island plans an inquiry into the capsizing of a boat during a fierce Lake Michigan storm that led to the deaths of two crew members, an official said Tuesday.
"We want to understand what happened and to learn what we can do to improve the safety guidelines under which we run this race," said Greg Freeman, chairman of the Chicago Yacht Club's Race to Mackinac.
Mark Morley, skipper of the Saginaw-based WingNuts, and crew member Suzanne Bickel died after the 35-foot craft overturned around midnight Sunday. A rival boat rescued the other six crew members, who said in a statement their boat was knocked over by a 75-mph gust.
The survivors said they had prepared for the oncoming storm by dropping the main sail and clipping on safety harnesses that attached each of them to the boat. After it capsized, the six survivors detached the lines or cut themselves loose. Morley, 51, and Bickel, 40, were unable to free themselves. A dive team found them about eight hours later.
They are the only competitors who have died in an accident during the race's 103-year history. One man suffered a fatal heart attack years ago, officials said.
In an online news conference from Mackinac Island, Freeman said he hadn't talked with crew members from WingNuts and did not know the details of the mishap or what might have prevented Morley and Bickel from undoing their harnesses.
The devices are meant to prevent sailors from becoming separated from a vessel if they fall overboard. They can be released either from where they are attached to the boat or where they're fastened to the wearer, Freeman said.
Freeman said postponing the race wasn't an option, because the storm arose well into the event. Some vessels had departed from Chicago on Friday and others Saturday.
"It is not usual but not unprecedented for storms to come up" during the race, he said. "I did not believe that prior to the race we felt that there was anything that was going to be unmanageable."
Freeman said he didn't know whether the Race to Mackinac had ever been called off or delayed because of weather, but said it hadn't happened during the 25 years he has participated.
The 333-mile race has rigorous safety guidelines, he said. They include requirements that crew members wear tracking beacons, life preservers and other gear, including a knife with a blade that can be opened with one hand so a harness could be cut away in a single motion.