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Group: Boat In Fatal Great Lakes Accident Unstable

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The sailboat WingNuts floats upside down in Lake Michigan, off the coast of Charlevoix, Mich., Monday, July 18, 2011.  (AP Photo/John L. Russell)

The sailboat WingNuts floats upside down in Lake Michigan, off the coast of Charlevoix, Mich., Monday, July 18, 2011. (AP Photo/John L. Russell)

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CHARLEVOIX (WWJ/AP) - A sailboat that capsized in a storm during the annual race from Chicago to Mackinac Island, killing two crew members, was not suited for the competition because its sails were too big for its weight, a sailing group says.

U.S. Sailing’s report criticized the design of the WingNuts boat, saying its sail area was too large for its weight under the conditions of the long Great Lakes competition.

The Kiwi 35-foot sport boat overturned July 18 in Lake Michigan off the northwest Michigan coast near Charlevoix, killing skipper Mark Morley, 51, and crew member Suzanne Makowski-Bickel, 41. A competing vessel rescued the other six crew members from the Saginaw-based yacht.

“WingNuts was a highly inappropriate boat for a race of this duration, overnight, without safety boats, and in an area known to have frequent violent thunderstorms. Her capable crew and preparation could not make up for the fact that she had too little stability, which led to her being blown over by a severe gust,” said the report, which was requested by the Chicago Yacht Club, the race organizer.

Greg Miarecki, rear commodore for the Chicago Yacht Club, said officials had reviewed the WingNuts’ stability but it didn’t raise concerns. He said the report concluded that the stability index that had been used may not have been the best indication of whether the boat was too unstable to be in the competition.

“Looking at the report, it appears that there’s now some discussion about having a stability index that’s different or additional,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “We would certainly welcome that.”

Organizers say 355 boats and roughly 3,500 crew members took part in the annual race, which finishes off Mackinac Island in the straits where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet. The first race was in 1898, and organizers began holding it every year starting in 1921.

The U.S. Sailing report praised WingNuts’ crew and the boat’s preparation before the storm, and it also praised the crew of Sociable, the boat that rescued WingNuts’ survivors and coordinated the search and rescue.

The Charlevoix County medical examiner determined that Morley and Makowski-Bickel drowned after severe head trauma made them incapable of saving themselves.

Wind gusts were estimated at 80 mph or higher when the boat capsized. The Coast Guard said 4- to 6-foot waves were reported and air and water temperatures were in the low 70s. A sailor taking part in the Chicago-to-Mackinac race captured the footage as severe storms capsized the boat. Watch the video, here.

Earlier this month, county Sheriff Don Schneider said his 11-week investigation found that the crew acted properly and no one was at fault in the accident.

The report will also be studied by Detroit’s Bayview Yacht Club and could bring changes to another race next summer, the Beer Bayview Mackinac Race, which runs up Lake Huron from Port Huron to Mackinac Island, according to 2012 race chairman Greg Thomas.

“I am sure we’re going to have requirements about stability and righting moment and who we permit to race,” Thomas told the Detroit Free Press. “Whatever we have to do to improve the safety of our race, I can promise you it will get done. It’s not going to go ignored.”

Thomas said such accidents have inevitably led to safety improvements in the sport of sailing.

“How many hundreds of boats have sailed in the 190 Mackinac races these two lakes have put on over the years, and this was the first fatality,” Thomas said. “Something’s been working right.”

TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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