Survivors Tell Tale of Fatal Wreck in Race to Mackinac

Report finds sailboat not stable enough for dangerous conditions

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    US Sailing
    The wreck of WingNuts, which capsized during the 2011 Race to Mackinac, killing two crew members.

    A boat that capsized during the Chicago-to-Mackinac race and claimed the lives of two crew members was unsuited for the competition because its sails were too big for its weight, a sailing group has found.

    US Sailing's report described moment-by-moment events during the powerful midsummer storm that capsized the boat "WingNuts" in northern Lake Michigan.

    WingNuts was one of 37 boats knocked over during powerful, sustained winds in excess of 65 miles per hour. All the other boats righted themselves, but WingNuts capsized off Charlevoix, killing skipper Mark Morley and crew member Suzanne Makowski-Bickel.

    Dramatic Images: Boat Capsized by Storm During Race to Mackinac

    [CHI] Dramatic Images: Boat Capsized by Storm During Race to Mackinac
    A sailboat capsized near the Fox islands, during the Chicago Yacht Club's annual Race to Mackinac. Another boater's helmet camera recorded footage of the disabled craft.

    "We went up to the windward side and waited for the boat to come back. But this was not a short puff but a steady blast," said Peter Moreley, who co-owned the boat with his brother, Mark, who died in the wreck.

    The unrelenting winds held the boat down on its side for several minutes, Moreley said. Then, the unthinkable happened.

    “The wind was still blasting and suddenly we’re beyond 90 degrees and I can see the end of the mast going deeper, and the boat beginning to turtle. I yelled, 'It’s going over, everybody get clear of the boat!' But that’s not easy to do in a boat that’s 14 feet wide," Moreley recalled.

    The entire crew was in the water in a moment. Peter's brother and Bickel were thrown together, according to the report.  Part of the boat may have come down on them, hitting both in the head. They were likely knocked out as soon as they hit the water.

    One man was initially trapped inside the cabin of the capsized boat, but was able to free himself and get to the surface. Moreley told investigators he eventually found the woman's body, but she was trapped underwater, hopelessly snagged by the sailboat's lines, and appared already dead.

    As the violent storm continued to toss the boat on enormous waves, the survivors clung to the wreck. Two boys who were among the crew triggered satellite emergency beacons. But that wasn't what saved their lives. One of them also had a small whistle, and used it to try to catch the attention of competing vessels nearby. Crew members on the "Sociable" were about a half-mile away, when they heard the high-pitched sound over the roar of the storm, and turned their boat to help.

    The Sociable rescued six survivors. A Coast Guard official later hailed her crew as heroes.

    Despite the WingNuts' experienced and capable crew, the report concludes the boat was too unstable, rendering it "highly inappropriate for a race of this duration … in an area known to have frequent violent thunderstorms."

    The race's 2012 chairman Greg Thomas promised new stability requirements would be enacted for next summer's event.