DETROIT — Two experienced sailors, including the skipper, died after their boat capsized during the annual Chicago-to-Mackinac race, competition organizers confirmed Monday, hours after six other crew members were pulled to safety by a rival team.
A Charlevoix County dive team recovered skipper Mark Morley, 51, and Suzanne Bickel, 40, about eight hours after authorities received word that their boat, WingNuts, had capsized, the Coast Guard said.
The Chicago Yacht Club, which organizes the Race to Mackinac, said in a statement that Morley and Bickel, who were both from Saginaw, were race veterans. Morley had participated in six Chicago-Mackinac races and Bickel had taken part in two.
The deaths are the first caused by the weather or an accident in the race’s long history, although one sailor died of a heart attack years ago, race spokeswoman Rachelle Treiber said.
Officials said a severe thunderstorm with strong wind gusts was moving through the area when the boat capsized early Monday near the Fox Islands west of Charlevoix, which is across Lake Michigan and about 270 miles from Navy Pier in Chicago. Air and water temperatures early Monday were in the low 70s, with 4- to 6-foot waves.
The crew of Sociable, a competing boat, notified authorities early Saturday that WingNuts had capsized and took six of the eight crew members on board, the Coast Guard said.
All six of the people recovered were wearing life preservers, and they were taken to the Coast Guard station in Charlevoix for evaluation, the Coast Guard said.
WingNuts is based in Saginaw, and seven of the eight crewmembers were from Michigan. The other crewmember was from Chicago, where the race started at Navy Pier for some competitors on Friday but for most on Saturday.
Rockford resident Chip Cummings, whose 16-year-old son, C.J. was rescued, told The Associated Press that the WingNuts crew prepared for storms by lowering the sails but were overcome by sudden, strong winds and waves.
“They knew it was coming but it just sort of caught the boat the wrong way,” Chip Cummings said. He said his son, a cousin of Mark Morley, and other crewmates pressed alerts on their live vests alerting the Coast Guard they were in trouble.
Cummings said Stuart Morley, 15, Mark Morley’s nephew, was able to undo the harness that was attaching him and the other sailors to the boat, then released C.J.’s harness. That enabled both of them to get out of the water and onto the hull.
Cummings said his son, who lives in Grandville, is exhausted but otherwise physically fine.
“Mark lived to sail — he lived and breathed sailing,” Chip Cummings said. “He was certainly the most accomplished sailor ... I’ve ever met.”
The other rescued sailors were Mark’s brother Peter Morley, 47, John Dent, 50; Stan Dent, 51; and Lee Purcell, 46.
Organizers say 355 boats and roughly 3,500 crew members took part in the race, which finishes off of Mackinac Island near where lakes Michigan and Huron meet. The first race was held in 1898, and organizers began holding it every year starting in 1921. This year’s race is the 103rd running.
Adam Hollerbach, who sailed aboard the 70-foot vessel Details, said that boat reached Mackinac Island’s harbor just as the storm unleashed its fury, with wildly shifting gusts, lightning bolts and stinging hail.
“It was among the nastiest, if not the nastiest, that I’ve seen,” said Hollerbach, 33, of Detroit.
Racers were in a somber mood as they arrived at the island and learned of the WingNuts’ fate, he said.
“You know that it could have been you,” Hollerbach said.
Participants in past races have had to deal with severe weather, according to the race’s website. An 80-mile gale in 1911 caused the vessel Vendector to crash on rocks near Fisherman’s Island off Charlevoix. The crew survived.
A crewmember was swept overboard during a 65-mph gale in 1937 and rescued by the Coast Guard. Just eight of 42 yachts were able to finish the race.
In 1970, a storm caused 88 of 167 starters to withdraw. A gale in 2002 capsized the 44-foot Caliente and damaged other vessels.
Associated Press writer John Flesher in Traverse City contributed to this report.