Rhumb Lines December 2011 Issue

Lessons from the Mackinac

WingNuts’ radical, ultra-light design was cited as a key factor in the accident that claimed the lives of two sailors.

On Oct. 31, U.S. Sailing released independent reports on three highly publicized sailing accidents that happened this year:

• The Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac accident involving WingNuts in which the captain and one crew member died when the boat capsized in a fierce Lake Michigan squall;

• The death of 14-year-old Olivia Constants, who drowned when a 420 she was sailing in capsized during sailing practice on the Severn River in Maryland.

• The Rambler 100 incident in which a 100-foot, canting-keel racing sloop participating in the Rolex Fastnet Race lost its keel and capsized.

All three of the reports can be found on the U.S. Sailing website at http://ussailing.org/US_SAIING_Meetings/USS_Reports.htm. Even if you are not a racer, these reports should be required reading—as should our own follow-up report.

Practical Sailor has been closely following the WingNuts capsize, in which the captain, Mark Morley, and Suzanne Bickel died of “head injuries and drowning,” while still tethered to the boat, and six crew were saved by fellow racers. Practical Sailor Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo served on the U.S. Sailing panel; his focus was on the weather and the boat design features that led to the accident.

While it is clear that these two factors were primary contributors to the tragedy, I was most interested in findings regarding harnesses and tethers. Practical Sailor recently carried out a detailed look at tether-release mechanisms in September 2011. Three surviving crew from WingNuts reported having trouble with their tethers immediately after the capsize. The panel, however, concluded that “well-designed personal safety equipment of these types, including tethers that can be quickly unclipped from the harness when under load, did not endanger the crew of WingNuts.”

The panel findings state that “Bickel and Morley were very likely unconscious before the boat settled upside down,” suggesting that neither ever attempted to get free of the boat.

While apparently absolving “well-designed” tethers and harnesses, the panel did­­­—rightfully—call for a “study of different tether/life jacket/harness designs to determine if an optimum combination of security and ease of release can be found.”

The report offers details on the types of tethers worn by the survivors. Two tethers, those worn by Bickel and Morely, are identified as West Marine brand. Two others were identified as “possibly a West Marine” and a “West type.” West Marine issued a voluntary recall of a line of tethers in 2010 and has since modified the design.

These details matter in light of the fact that the investigative panel’s chairman and author of the findings is Chuck Hawley, West Marine’s vice president of product development. Hawley’s commitment to safety is well known, but in my view, it is inappropriate for him to take a lead position in an investigation in which West Marine tethers and harnesses may have played such a critical role. Hawley­, who collaborated with noted safety writer and past PS contributor John Rousmaniere on the report, brings key insight into gear studies. However, PS urges that future “independent” reports by U.S. Sailing be directed by experts who do not have close personal, professional, or commercial ties to the subject of inquiry.

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