Chicago Yacht Club investigating boat race deaths

July 19, 2011 (CHICAGO)

The 35-foot sailboat WingNuts capsized near the Fox Islands, west of Charlevoix, Michigan, around midnight Sunday night.

Tuesday afternoon, on Mackinac Island and in Chicago, those who lost their lives were remembered.

It is believed a wind gust up to 75 mph flipped the sailboat over in a thunderstorm. The eight people on board had already attached themselves to safety lines.

In a telephone news conference Tuesday race organizers were asked what happened in those last moments aboard the WingNuts and whether the race have been stopped beforehand.

"The race was well under way when weather developed the way it did," sad race chairman Greg Freeman. "I did not believe prior to the race that anything was unmanageable. And what clearly built was quite severe."

Six of those tossed into the water were rescued by other boaters, but two others died, 51-year-old skipper Mark Morley and 40-year-old Suzanne Bickle, both from Saginaw, Michigan.

Morley was an experienced sailor. What's not known is why he and Bickle were unable to detach themselves from their safety lines. Those lines are supposed to have detachable hooks at each end. A rescue diver found a tangled mess.

"It was all tangled, with the sail and the ropes," said rescue diver George Lasater.

Sailors themselves are supposed to have knives to cut themselves free -- if necessary -- using just one hand.

"It's very unclear to me, at this point, why they were unable to get free. I just don't know," said Freeman.

At the Chicago Yacht Club flags are at half-staff to memorialize those lost. There is no talk of cancelling next year's race.

"We've done this race 113 years and we expect to do it again," said Freeman. "I do think this gives us pause-- the sport we engage in has risk and dangers associated with it, and we need to pay attention to that."

Freeman says sailors on 20 other sailboats stopped to help the crew of the capsized boat.

This weekend, there is another race to Mackinac Island. It doesn't start in Chicago; it's on Lake Huron.

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