In the mourning after the Mac, concerns about safety

July 21, 2011

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During the Race to Mackinac, crews sail through the night to cover 333 miles from Chicago to Mackinac Island, making it one of the longest annual freshwater sailboat races in the world. When two sailors died in last weekend’s race, organizers say they were the first competition-related casualties in the race’s 113-year history. Now the tragedy is raising questions about sailing safety.

Among serious sailors there’s a saying about the weather that goes something like this: I’ll take a storm, as long as the wind is strong. The wind was fairly light before the start of the Mac, as skipper David Tarson consulted his colorful wind charts. “If this wind holds up we should be beyond the purple,” Tarson said, pointing to the screen of his crewmate's mobile phone. “We might be to the green.”

Tarson owns Excalibur, one of the 360 boats competing in this year’s race. As Excalibur motored to the start, crewmember Igor Haraslic spotted a patch of rough weather on the radar.

What they saw was a thunderstorm brewing in Lake Michigan. 

Sailboat races are rarely canceled because of storms. Experienced sailors talk about stormy weather like it’s par for the course, and in a long-distance race like the Mac conditions can change halfway through.  Race Chairman Greg Freeman pointed this out in a press conference Tuesday.

“You have to understand the race happens over 48 to 72 hours,” Freeman told reporters. “It’s highly likely we could start on a clear sunny day and sail 300 miles north and go into an entirely different weather system.”

And that’s just what happened.

As the fleet passed near Charlevoix, Mich. late Sunday night, the National Weather Service issued a severe weather advisory, according to meteorologist Bruce Smith. “In that special marine warning, mariners were told to expect gusty winds, high waves, dangerous lightning and heavy rains,” Smith said in a phone interview. Boaters, he added, were asked to seek safe harbor until the storm had passed.

David Tarson said he’d never seen anything like the storm that night. “I’ve only seen one other storm with that much lightening,” Tarson recalled. “It was like daylight. It was almost like the skies lit up for a sustained period of time.”

Most of the fleet made it through ok. But one boat did not: WingNuts, a 35 foot boat known for its unusual hull shape and popular crew.

Much of what happened that night remains unclear. But unusually strong winds caused the boat to capsize, and witnesses describe seeing WingNuts bottom-up, keel in the air.  All eight crew members went overboard.

Sociable, another boat in the race, was the first on the scene. It sent out a distress call, which was picked up by skipper David Tarson.

Sociable’s skipper, Bob Arzbaecher, declined to talk to WBEZ about what happened Sunday night. But witnesses describe how Arzbaecher and his crew coordinated the initial search and bravely rescued six sailors from open water.

Hours later though, there were still two people missing: 51-year-old skipper Mark Morely and 41-year-old Suzanne Bickel, both of Saginaw, Mich. Witnesses say WingNuts’ surviving crew feared their friends were still trapped underneath the capsized boat.

The Chicago Yacht Club, which organizes the race, claims it has stringent safety requirements for all boats. Competitors participate “soley at their own risk.”

However, the U.S. Coast Guard traditionally provides an escort for the racing fleet. This year it was the USCGC Mackinaw.

The cutter was nearly 2 hours away when Sociable sent out its distress call. The Coast Guard responded by sending a smaller boat and a helicopter from Traverse City, Mich.

David Tarson keeps a wet suit, flippers and a defibrillator on his boat. He wanted to go into the water to look for Morely and Bickel, but his crew talked him out of it. They were under the impression that the Coast Guard would send in their own divers. “They convinced me it was dangerous for me to be there, that there are people who do this that are trained for it,” Tarson said. “That made sense to me. You don’t want to have one person you’re saving while you’re saving the other two.”

However, the Coast Guard did not have a dive team that night. A Coast Guard spokesperson told WBEZ this was normal because they don’t maintain their own dive teams for search and rescue. Instead, they use divers provided by local law enforcement. In this case, the Sheriff’s office in Charlevoix County, Mich.

Divers did not arrive until early morning. According to the sheriff’s office, divers quickly found the two missing sailors trapped underneath the boat, still tethered to their life lines.

Twenty people died sailing on the Great Lakes last year, according to statistics kept by the Coast Guard. According to the Chicago Yacht Club, both Morely and Bickle were experienced sailors, with eight Macs and more than 100 qualifying races between them. It’s not clear why they were unable to detach their life lines or escape from under the boat.

David Tarson says he feels misled about what rescue resources were available to the race fleet. “The Mackinaw cutter escorts the guys every year up here, we thought to ensure our safety. They have Coast Guard stations spread along the lake, we thought to ensure our safety. We thought these things apply to us,” Tarson said in a phone interview from Mackinac Island. “I don’t mean to disrespect the Coast Guard. I’m just wondering about some of the protocols here and what their role truly is.”

A Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer George Degener, said they are there to help boats in distress, but mariners need to use sound judgment. “We try to let people know that there is always danger on the water whether there’s a possibility of storms or calm pristine day,” Degener said. “Unfortunately this tragic incident showcases the Lakes are unpredictable and dangerous and there’s always that element of danger involved.”

The Chicago Yacht Club and the Charlevoix County Sheriff’s office both say they will launch investigations into this incident. Flags on Mackinac Island are flying at half-mast this week, and the deceased sailors were remembered during the awards ceremony Tuesday. Some, like David Tarson, say the incident has given them pause.

“In the back of your mind somewhere you know there’s risks and you minimize those risks,” he said. “You’re trying to push the boat to its limits in conditions that are controlled by Mother Nature, not by you. The potential is always there for a disaster.”

Tarson is moving his boat to San Diego this year, but said he would consider doing the Mac again.

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