Monday, July 18, 2011

Two bodies found after capsize in Chicago Mac Race

WingNuts


The bodies of two sailors who disappeared when their boat capsized in a storm during the Chicago Yacht Club’s Race to Mackinac were recovered by Coast Guard divers Monday morning and identified as the skipper of the boat and a crew member, both from Saginaw, Mich.

The yacht club said they were the first sailors to drown in the history of the well-known race, which dates to 1898 and has been run annually since 1921.

Mark Money, the 51-year-old skipper of the 35-foot yacht Wingnuts, and crew member Suzanne Bickel, 41, were both experienced sailors, according to the Chicago Yacht Club. Morley had 44 years of sailing experience, including six Chicago-to-Mackinac races and 85 qualifying races, and Bickel, his girlfriend, had sailed in two previous Chicago-to-Mackinac Races, with 16 qualifying races.

Their bodies were discovered around 7:45 a.m. Monday in northern Lake Michigan off the Michigan coastline southeast of North Fox Island, according to the Coast guard. They drowned when their boat flipped in 60 mile-an-hour winds and six-foot seas.

The yacht’s six other crew members — including Chicago architect Lee Purcell, 46, and five others from Michigan — were pulled from the water by the crew of another boat competing in the race, the Sociable, according to Purcell’s mother, Alice Pugh, of Michigan City, Ind.

The disaster brought back terrible memories for Pugh. She said her husband, who was also named Lee Purcell and also was a keen sailor, drowned in Lake Michigan in a boating accident before their son was born.

“It was a close call for me,” she said, adding that her son had called her at 6 a.m. to tell her he was OK but “pretty shook-up.”

Her son grew up on Lake Michigan and couldn’t be dissuaded from sailing, she said.

“You can’t discourage someone if it’s what you love to do and you think you have everything under control,” Pugh said.

Purcell had crewed for several years on Wingnuts, which was owned by a group of four friends from Michigan, and had entered several Mackinac races previously, she said. He had been on the Lake in heavy storms before, she said.

The Coast Guard was notified about 12:20 a.m. Monday that the Wingnuts had capsized in the waters southeast of North Fox Island, according to spokesman Lt. Adam Saurin.

A rescue helicopter from Traverse City, Mich., as well as a cutter and dive team from the Charlevoix, Mich., Coast Guard Station, were deployed in the search, Saurin said.

The skipper of the Sociable radioed for assistance, and 10 boats in the vicinity abandoned the race to join in search efforts for the missing sailors, according to the yacht club.

Chip Cummings, whose 16-year-old son C.J. Cummings, of Grandville, Mich., was one of the six rescued near Lake Michigan’s Fox Islands, said the Wingnuts was overcome by sudden strong winds and waves that flipped it.

His son and others pressed alerts on their life vests signaling trouble and sent a GPS alert to the Coast Guard, he said.

All six people who were pulled from the water were wearing life jackets and two had personal locating beacons, Saurin said. It wasn’t known if the two who died had been wearing life jackets.

Joseph S. Haas, the commodore of the Chicago Yacht Club, said the race organizers “express our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the crew of Wingnuts. The crew of this boat exemplified the spirit of the Chicago-Mac that is steeped in tradition of family, friends and passion for the water.”

The 333-mile race from just off Navy Pier to Mackinac Island is the oldest annual freshwater distance race in the world. An estimated 3,500 crewmembers on 355 boats participated.

In 1970, more than half of the yachts participating in the race took refuge from northerly winds gusting at more than 60 miles an hour.

In 1937, only eight of 42 boats finished because of high winds.

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