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.
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.