Behind the Race to Mackinac tragedy | In too deep
How the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac claimed the lives of two skilled Michigan sailors.
At 333 miles, the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac is the longest annual freshwater sailing race in the world. The grueling two-and-a-half or three-day slog requires crews to sleep in shifts every two or four hours in the beating rain, scorching sun and bitter cold that can cause frostbite even in summer. Starting near Navy Pier and ending close to the quaint vacation destination of Michigan’s Mackinac Island, it is man versus nature on the most basic level, even with its reputation as a rich man’s sport.
Before the 2011 race, the event had never seen a racing-related death in its 103 years. (There have been a few health-related incidents, including several heart attacks, but nothing directly attributed to sailing.) In some ways, the race’s clean record is a wonder, especially considering Lake Michigan’s rapidly changing squalls, which can blow in and out much quicker than ocean winds. The squalls make it harder to navigate and anticipate conditions, causing boats to go over one choppy wave and smash right into the next without reprieve.
Experienced sailors Mark Morley, 51, and Suzanne Bickel, 40, both of Saginaw, Michigan, were among the 3,500 competitors placing their sailboats in position on the afternoon of July 16, waiting for the firing cannon to start the race. Soon after the loud report sounded, their boat, a Kiwi-35 named WingNuts for its unusual 14-foot–wide winglike extensions to the deck, navigated with Mark at its tiller past 11 other boats in its sportsman class. WingNuts followed the Wisconsin shoreline the first night of the race, passing summer festivals as fireworks lit up the sky.
“The first day and first night were awesome,” recalls Peter Morley, Mark’s younger brother, who was part of the crew. “We were having the time of our lives and everyone was all smiles. This year, the race felt better. We were going fast and passing boats. It was the second night that things went to hell.”