CHARLEVOIX (WWJ/AP) – The crew of a sailboat that capsized on Lake Michigan during a July storm acted properly and no one is at fault in the mishap that killed two people, a Michigan sheriff said Friday.
Charlevoix County Sheriff Don Schneider said his 11-week investigation found that skipper Mark Morley and crew member Suzanne Makowski-Bickel died of blunt force trauma to the head after their sailboat WingNuts overturned during the Chicago-to-Mackinac Island race July 18. The Coast Guard says 4- to 6-foot waves were reported and air and water temperatures were in the low 70s.
A medical examiner’s report also listed drowning as a secondary cause. A competing vessel rescued the other six crew members from the lake.
“It was just a tragic accident,” Schneider told the Petoskey News-Review.
Wind gusts were estimated at 80 mph or higher when the boat capsized. Schneider said the crew had prepared for the storm by wearing personal floatation devices and tethering themselves to the craft.
They weren’t immediately concerned when the boat rolled 90 degrees at the peak of the gale because it previously had righted itself from similar rolls, he said. But this time, “the vessel continued to roll and capsized.”
Crew members told investigators they struggled to free themselves from the tethers in the pitch darkness, Schneider said.
“The tethers became entangled in the rigging, causing them to be held down under the water line as the vessel tossed and rolled by the wave action,” his report said. “The tethers had to be released or cut by a fellow crew member to free them.”
A sailor taking part in the Chicago-to-Mackinac race captured the footage as severe storms capsized the boat. Watch the video here.
Five survivors were able to climb onto the hull, while the sixth was too exhausted to pull himself up and grasped the rudder instead. The crew of Sociable, another sailboat, rescued the rival team members.
Morley, 51, was found under the boat while Makowski-Bickel, 40, was found with her head and shoulders outside the boat but underwater.
“Whether they were unconscious or dazed to the point where they couldn’t help themselves, I’m sure there are a number of factors that contributed to their deaths,” Schneider said.
Experts on life vests and tethers should investigate the problems that the WingNuts crew experienced in freeing themselves, he said.
“This tragedy could very easily have taken a higher toll of lives,” he said.
U.S. Sailing, the governing body for sailboat racing, is expected to release findings from a separate investigation Oct. 29.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.