The Charlevoix County Michigan U.S. sheriff Don Schneider’s s investigation looking the double fatality in the 2011 Chicago to Mackinac Race was released last Friday.
During the second night of the race, at the height of a very severe storm which crossed the northern part of Lake Michigan, Mark Morley, the 51-year-old skipper of the 35-foot sailboat WingNuts, and 40-year-old Makowski-Bickel died.
The death of two sailors was primarily the result of blunt force trauma sustained when their boat capsized, according to the autopsy report, the Charlevoix County sheriff said in his final report released Friday.
Sheriff Don Schneider's investigation reports that both victims sustained 'tremendous trauma' to their faces and heads when Morley's 35-foot WingNuts capsized on July 18 in 70- to 80-knot winds. The secondary cause of death was drowning, the report said.
'Whether they were unconscious or dazed to the point where they couldn't help themselves, I'm sure there are a number of factors that contributed to their deaths,' Schneider said.
According to the report Morley was found vertical in the water with his head up, under the boat and the diver was able to unclip his tether. Makowski-Bickel was so entangled in the boat's lines and rigging that the diver had to cut her loose, according to the report.
The Charlevoix County Sheriff in the 150-page report raised concerns about both PFDs and tethers.
While the sheriff says PFDs and tethers are necessary safety wear for sailors he asks if some modifications need to be made based on what happened to the crew of the WingNuts.
'We're certainly presenting them, here's the problem, the experts can come up with the solutions,' said Schneider.
‘If you've got a self-inflating PFD, and you find yourself upside down in the boat, under the boat, that self-inflating PFD could cause your death, because it could keep you under the boat’, said Schneider.
When the boat capsized, its reported that the surviving crew had a hard time freeing themselves.
'That tether, particularly in a sailboat where you've got all the sails, obviously, from our investigation, were all getting entangled from all the obstruction under there,' said the Sheriff.
There will be more on this subject in the weeks ahead, but from the Sail-World editorial team’s perspective, one of the factors which complicate the development of quick release harnesses and tethers can be the need to release under high drag load.
It has been suggested that during the Chicago Mackinac storm, capsized boats including possibly WingNuts were being pushed along at speeds of up to nine knots, even after being knocked down and releasing a tether if being dragged at that speed would be very difficult.
It seems that a straight-bladed knife, the kind kept at the top of the companion way on most ocean racing yachts but not often worn by racing sailors is the only thing that can release sailors in such circumstances.
However such knives are required personal equipment for the Chicago to Mackinac race and the Bells Beer Bayview Mackinac Race from Port Huron.
Here are some extracts from Sheriff Schneider’s report:
‘The capsizing was the result of a severe storm front moving across Lake Michigan with wind speeds approaching hurricane force. The storm was well radio broadcasted by the National Weather Service.
‘The crew of the WingNuts was aware of the approaching storm. Armed with that knowledge, the crew lowered the main sail and relied on the #3 head sail to maintain steerage. The crew continued to prepare for the storm by dressing in foul weather gear, PFDs, and attaching their tethers to the boat.
‘At the peak of the storm, the vessel rolled ninety degrees. The crew was not concerned at that point due to prior history of the vessel always returning to normal trim. However, the vessel continued to roll and capsized.
’It is at that point when tragedy struck. It is reported by several crewmembers of struggling to free themselves of the vessel due to their tethers. The tethers became entangled in the rigging causing them to be held down under the water line as the vessel tossed and rolled by the wave action. The tethers had to be released or cut by a fellow crew member to free them of the vessel. This problem was acerbated by the pitch darkness of the night.
‘On the matter of tethers and the questions around them. Answers should come from competent experts in the field of personal flotation devices (PFD) and tethers.
The question was raised in regards to the vessel design and did this design contribute to the vessel capsizing? Again, that question would be best answered by experienced naval engineers with a specialty in sailing vessels.
Under the column of what went right, the crew had prepared themselves for the storm as described above.
This was followed by a team effort, after capsizing, to ensure each of the other crewmen was aided in freeing themselves from the vessel. With the exception of one crewmember, all of the crewmembers had donned their PFD.
The exception was one crewmember who had gone below deck to rest. Given the circumstance that he was below deck at the time of the capsizing, placed him in more serious peril.
By not being encumbered by his PFD, and focusing on the vessel instrument lights, it allowed him to find his way out from under the hull.
Had he worn and inflated his PFD, there is a strong indication that he could have been trapped inside with fatal results.
Five of the six survivors were able to climb on top of the hull to await rescue. The sixth survivor was too exhausted to pull himself up on the hull so he held on to the rudder.
The crewmembers using their emergency strobe lights and whistles were able to draw the attention of the sailing vessel, Sociable. The Sociable, using a life sling, was able to retrieve the six survivors from the WingNuts and later transported them to shore for medical evaluation.
The crew of the Sociable is commended for their valiant efforts in rescuing the survivors of the WingNuts.
Looking at what went wrong, we only need to look at two main areas of concern. First, no one would argue that the PFD is an excellent safety device under the majority of circumstances. It should also be pointed out there are many types of PFDs.
Each type of PFD has unique purposes and the correct one to use is dependent upon the person and the situation.
To make this point, look at a self-inflating or type 1 PFD. If given the scenario of being trapped under an overturned boat, the ability to escape is of serious concern.
The opposite would happen if someone was injured or incapacitated and fell overboard, where the self-inflating or type 1 PFD would be of significant advantage.
There is no correct answer for this situation. Armed with the knowledge of the PFD being used, the recommendation would be practice the ability to deflate the vest, if found to be trapped.
Second, the issue of the tethers brings about additional concerns. Again, there is no correct answer. In review of the survivors' statements, it is of concern when the tether becomes entangled in rigging or any other equipment.
Another concern is the ability to be able to unhook the tether from the harness or PFD once the PFD is inflated.
To be clear, 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, for rapid deployment.’
Commodore Joseph Haas of the Chicago Yacht Club, the race’s organizer, asked US SAILING to conduct an independent study of what happened. On July 28 Gary Jobson, the President of US SAILING, appointed the Independent Review Panel for the 2011 Mackinac Race, and directed it to consider what lessons might be learned and also to make recommendations.
The members of the Independent Review Panel are (Chairman) Chuck Hawley, Santa Cruz, Cal.; Sheila McCurdy, Middletown, R.I.; Ralph Naranjo, Annapolis, Md.; and John Rousmaniere, New York, N.Y. Each is an experienced offshore sailor, a long-time member of US SAILING’s Safety-at-Sea Committee, and a moderator of US SAILING-certified Safety at Sea Seminars. The Chicago Yacht Club appointed one if its members, Leif Sigmond Jr., to serve as the club’s liaison to the panel.
The Independent Review Panel will present its report to the Chicago Yacht Club and US SAILING’s in late October.