They go down to the sea in ships 7/19/2011

I’ve written each year about the sailboat race from Chicago to Mackinac Island.  I’ve posted photos of brilliantly colored sails billowing against blue sky and water and happy sailors celebrating the end of a successful voyage.

This story will be different.

A strong and sudden storm hit Mackinac Island around 11:30 Sunday night.  Charlie and Cathy were already in bed, anticipating an 8 a.m. taxi to the ferry.  Ted and I both jumped up from our recliners in the living room to shut windows and doors as winds whipped the rain onto countertops and the bay window ledge.  We heard small pellets of hail against the kitchen window that cranks out at an angle, but that only lasted a minute or so.

After we sat back down, our first words were about the sailors out on Lake Michigan.  The Chicago to Mackinac Island began on Friday for the big sailboats and on Saturday for others.  Over 3,500 crewmembers departed Chicago on 355 boats – all bound for Mackinac Island in the oldest freshwater distance race in the world.  The first boats arrived Sunday afternoon, and we were already planning to see Cathy and Charlie off and spend a little time in town watching other boats come in on Monday morning.

I turned the laptop back on and was frightened to see the storm passing over where most of the boats had to be – on the northwestern side of Michigan’s lower peninsula.  The storm was moving fast, but it was huge.  Prayers were said, and as thunder boomed and lightning flashed, we went to bed.

On rising around 7:15 I quickly turned to Facebook for news.  The headline jumped out at me – “Two still missing after the sailboat ‘WingNuts’ capsizes”.  The crew of 8 was thrown off the boat in 4-6 foot seas and 52 knot winds.  The “Sociable”, another sailboat that was nearby, had quickly rescued six of the crew.  A full-scale Coast Guard search was underway.

The water temperatures of Lake Michigan are survivable in the middle of the summer.  With life jackets and survival gear, a person overboard can make it in calm waters.  More prayers.

We went into town to see Charlie and Cathy off, and as their ferry pulled away from the dock we heard a report from the Coast Guard that two bodies had been recovered.  As word spread, the already worried crews on the docks stood stunned and shaken.  The joy each of them experienced from sailing through the storm and safely reaching land was instantly crushed by the report of the loss of two sailing friends.

A Coast Guard statement said “Lost were the “WingNuts” skipper, 51-year old Mark Morley and 41-year-old Suzanne Bickel, both of Saginaw, MI.  Morley had 44 years of sailing experience, including 6 Chicago to Mac races and 85 other qualifying races.  Bickel had raced the Chicago to Mac twice before and 16 other qualifying races.  The ‘Sociable’ reported the capsized boat to the Coast Guard and called all boats for assistance on Channel 16.  Ten boats in the vicinity immediately abandoned the race to assist in the search.”  The sailors were the first to die in the history of the race, which dates back to 1898 and has run consecutively each year from 1921.

The boats continue to come in, and on Saturday the Port Huron to Mackinac Race will begin.  Sailors will continue to go down to the sea.  These men and women love sailing and have a passion for the water.  Many have already said “at least they died doing what they loved”.  For the men and women who live life to the fullest – whether in the air, or on land, or going down to the sea in ships – the statement is most likely true.  Perhaps we too can take comfort from that.

This photo by Steven Blair Kopacki shows a taxi hurrying to the barn after the severe thunderstorm hit the island. All the taxis were pulled from the streets until the storm was over.

The deadly line of storms as they passed directly over the race route.

Bikes on the dock Monday morning show evidence of the strong winds.

The heavy fog across the Straits seemed to fit the somber mood as sailboats, barely visible, sailed into the harbor Monday morning.

The laughter and celebration of previous race endings were sadly missing today.

A boat crew secures the rigging after safely making it into port.

Drying gear speaks volumes about the kind of night this boat's crew experienced.

Two more boats push slowly through the fog into the harbor.

After crossing the finish line, the boats begin to take down their sails as they come around the breakwater.

9:00 a.m. The sun peaks out, and in another hour the fog clears.

Our prayers go out to the families and friends of the two sailors lost to the storm.  The flags on Mackinac Island are all at half-staff in their memory.  A mass is planned at St. Anne’s on Tuesday at 11 a.m.

They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters. These men see the works of the Lord; and his wonders in the deep…Psalm 107


28 thoughts on “They go down to the sea in ships 7/19/2011

  1. What do you say in a situation like this? I am very saddened by the news. My thoughts and prayers go out to family and friends and to all the sailors that took part in the raced. RIP Mark and Suzanne. The sun will forever shine on you both.

  2. I have been following this story…so sad and shocking. Prayers for all. Thank you for this information and the photos. It helps us understand better what happened. Very sad for all. -Melissa

  3. Thanks Bree for sharing. They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters. These men see the works of the Lord; and his wonders in the deep…Psalm 107.

  4. I woke up this morning and saw that they were missing first thing as I logged onto Facebook. Followed the story until word broke that they found them…
    I don’t even know these folks but my heart was heavy all day. May God comfort their friends and family. 😥

  5. We hadn’t heard (from regular news sources) down here. Such sad, sad news. So young. Prayers were being said as soon as I started reading your column today – I knew it wasn’t a happy story. Special prayers for family and friends, and for the Coast Guard and those who helped search. And to you for telling this story so graciously. “O, hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea!”

  6. Thank you, Bree. I was almost afraid to read your blog this evening. I’ve been thinking about this all day – how it must have changed the whole feeling of the day.
    I have L.A. friends who are at their cabin downstate this week and are planning to visit the Island (finally!) and called me for suggestions. He mentioned the storm, although his cabin is further south than where it hit.

  7. Bree – what a wonderful tribute. How I wish I could be at the memorial at Ste. Anne’s today – my thoughts will be with one and all.

  8. I immediately called my 85 yr. old friend. He has sailed in the Port Huron to Mackinac race 50 times, and won it 5 times. He could never remember a loss of life in either of these races. I could tell in his voice he was shaken. He then went on to tell me a story from years ago about 3 friends who asked his advice about sailing the straits. He said hug the shoreline. They ignored all his advice, and did exactly the opposite, as was told by the “survivor”. The other two friends died that day. I was told this is a very dangerous area, especially when a storm kicks up. When I heard the boat name “WingNuts” I knew these were Michigan sailors. I know sailors “live” for this kind of stuff, but they also “die” for it too. Prayers to the families at this huge loss, and also prayers for the sailors who died doing what they loved to do. God bless you.

  9. I followed this story from the moment I got up yesterday and was saddened when the news finally broke that they’d found the last two had left this world. It was all I could do to keep from crying at work yesterday. But there is some comfort in knowing that they lived their last days in ultimate joy doing what they so loved. I’ll be at that 11:00 mass in spirit today and say a prayer at that time. Thanks for a beautiful tribute, Brenda.

  10. Brenda! Your writings brought tears to my eyes! The psalms was great! You definitely are a daughter of the King! Very sad situation but they were doing what they loved. Many prayers go out!

  11. Thank you for the beautiful blog tribute to the sailors lost. Such a tragic story and painful to all of the sailors and the families that love them.

  12. Indeed, thank you for the lovely post in memory of the sailors last trip to the island. God bless them, their families and the ones who rushed to rescue those who survived. So sorry about the tragedy. Thank you for the words and photos.

  13. Brenda,

    Thank you for your blog of tribute to Mark and Suzanne. I had not even heard there was a storm, let alone one of that magnitude. How sad for the families, and all of us too. They will certainly be remembered in prayer.

  14. Mark was a prominent business man here in Saginaw – very well respected and liked by all. Everyone in the business community and the sailing community were in shock by this sad news. Thoughts and prayers go out to both Mark’s and Suzanne’s families and to everyone else that is affected by this tragedy.

  15. I took this prayer from the Chicago Yacht Club’s website yesterday. It says it all: ” Lord, take these two mariners to your bosom and give them peace, fair weather and the wind at their back. We thank you for the selfless efforts of all those who assisted in the search and rescue, and we pray for the safe finish of all sailors still out on the course.Console and comfort the friends and families of those lost, and while we don’t often understand Your will, may the fact that these two good people died living their passion be a healing thought to all. Amen.”


  16. Have been reading of the mishap in the local papers. What a sad finish to such a wonderful race. Our prayers go out to all. And thank you, Bree, for your comments. We are thinking of all on the island this week. Love and hugs to all!

  17. How tragic. I too was watching the radar that day and wondered how the boats were faring.
    Never under estimate the power of the Great Lakes.
    May they rest in peace and comfort to their families.

    Pat Steele
    Vernon, MI

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