The annual race started in Toledo on Friday and sailors headed east to Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island overnight. Local authorities say the race was rerouted because of strong winds.
PORT CLINTON -- A Florida man died early today in an apparent accident during the overnight Mills Race yacht regatta on Lake Erie.
Ron Soka, the chairman of the Mills Race, confirmed that a sailor aboard a boat called “Horse” out of a Point Place boating club was the man whose body was found on the Catawba Island Township shore after falling overboard.
“I know a boat out of Point Place was involved. I believe it was a crew member [and not the skipper],” said Ron Soka, who added that he did not have any other details about the incident.
The body was recovered from Lake Erie shortly after sunrise members of the Coast Guard and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Watercraft Division.
Jason Fallon, an ODNR spokesman, released a statement describing the victim as a 65-year-old male from Malatcha, Fla., but not identifying him.
Although an initial report to the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office stated the missing man wore life preservers, Mr. Fallon said drowning appeared to be the likely cause of death, “pending medical examination.”
According to the website yachtscoring.com where sailors register for different races,, Horse is a natural wood, 30-foot sailboat built in 1980 and owned by Kenneth Sabin of Toledo. The boat was registered to compete in the Mills Race.
Mr. Soka said rough winds and waves were evident from the race’s start Friday evening and remained consistent throughout.
“It was windy, but it wasn’t unmanageable,” Mr. Soka said. “The boats were set up to handle the wind. We have raced in worse -- it was heavy though, no doubt.”
“It was intense if you didn’t know what you were doing,” added David Fournier, a crew member on Mr. Soka’s boat.
An Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher said the sheriff’s office was contacted at 1:42 a.m. to do a shore search for the body after a person fell from a sailboat off of the West Harbor Channel near Catawba Island Township.
The sheriff's office was called a second time to dispatch their dive team at 6:07 a.m. when a body was spotted in the water, but the divers were canceled half an hour later when responders were able to retrieve the body from shore, call records show.
The person calling authorities said the missing sailor wore yellow foul-weather gear, a life jacket, and a life ring, according to the sheriff’s office call log.
The annual race started in Toledo on Friday and sailors headed east to Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island overnight on three different courses that pass the area where the boater went overboard. Water temperature in western Lake Erie is currently about 60 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
Dave Ryan, 50, commodore of the Monroe Yacht Club and a crew member on Mr. Soka’s 32-foot boat, The Meridian, said the location where the man fell overboard is an area close to the shore off Catawba Island Township where north winds would have forced crew members to tack, a maneuver sailors use in which they “zig-zag” back and forth into the wind so that the direction from which the wind blows changes from one side to the other.
“It’s the most demanding location,” Mr. Ryan said of the turns off of Catawba.
The Meridian, passed West Harbor earlier in the evening, and later had to call for a rescue tow after running into trouble. The Meridian and its crew reached Put-in-Bay’s harbor about 3 a.m., Mr. Soka said, after it experienced rudder trouble in the windy weather.
The National Weather Service office in Cleveland issued a small-craft advisory for western Lake Erie on Friday evening in which it predicted north winds of 15 to 25 knots shifting to the northeast and waves building from 2 to 4 feet to 3 to 5 feet high.
Zach Sefcovic, a weather-service meteorologist, said Saturday afternoon that wind reports from stations closest to Catawba Island at the time of the incident were relatively mild. The wind at Port Clinton was out of the north at 9 knots at 1 a.m. and 6 knots at 2 a.m., he said, while the readings from Toledo and Lorain ranged between 7 and 11 knots during those hours.
Waves at a mid-lake buoy off Lorain were about 3 feet at the time, and the water temperature there was 59. Daytime water temperatures at Toledo and Cleveland were 63 degrees and 53 degrees, respectively.
One knot is 1 nautical mile per hour. A nautical mile is about 6,076 feet and is a measure preferred by navigators and aviators because it is about one degree of latitude.
Rescue Marine in Marblehead, Ohio was called out twice overnight for damaged sailboats and could see the Coast Guard rescue efforts, said Cory Schenk, a towboat captain with Rescue Marine.
"We could see the helicopter and Coast Guard boats flashing their lights," he said.
John Sokol, Toledo Yacht Club’s commodore, declined comment until the club knew more about what happened.
“There’s always a potential for this to happen,” he said. “Our biggest concern is the safety of everyone in the race.”
In such a race, it is the skipper who makes the call on whether the sailboat and crew should race, based on weather and other factors, said Dave Sullivan, 67, of the North Cape Yacht Club. It was unclear how many boats pulled out of this race, but 126 boats registered for the race.
Mike Mesteller of Toledo, who has sailed the Mills Race for six years, said Friday night’s race was the worst his seven-member crew had ever encountered.
“This year was a rough one,” he said.
On June 3, 2007, Bruce Gray Goldsmith, 71, was skippering his boat, Send in the Clowns, on Lake Erie off Monroe in North Cape Yacht Club’s Commodore Perry Race when the racers encountered heavy weather.
Mr. Goldsmith, a world-class sailor who had won multiple gold medals in the Pan Am Games in 1967 and 1975, was struck in the head by his boat’s aluminum boom and knocked into the water. While he was rescued quickly, his head injury proved fatal.
Mr. Sullivan and a crew member Troy Willett, 39, of Monroe, called the race one of the worst they have seen weather-wise. Mr. Sullivan, who has been sailing for 50 years, called it the second worst after weather during the 2008 Mills Race. He said crew members on his 33-foot vessel, “Legs a-Shakin” became drenched at one point when waves came over the boat during the race last night.
“It was a wall of water, just buckets of water,” said Mr. Willett.
The pair said they hadn’t been involved in a race before that took a fellow sailor.
“It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it’s devastating,” Mr. Willett said. “Especially when we are all out there to have fun.”
Blade staff writers David Patch and Lauren Lindstrom contributed to this report.
Contact Roberta Gedert at: 419-724-6081 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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