Mar 27, 2012, 1:10 PM
Date: Mon, 26 Mar 2012 17:54:14 -0400 (EDT)
Report from prime rescue boat in 2011 Chicago Mackinac rescue
Subject: Report from prime rescue boat in Mackinac rescue
Chicago to Mackinac 2011 Race
The following was the “Sociable” crews’ collective recollection of the storm and rescue of the crew of “Wingnuts” on Sunday July 17th and Monday, July 18th
Around 10:30 pm CDT on Sunday evening, we encountered a severe squall while positioned approximately 15 nautical miles northwest of Charlevoix. Conditions prior to the storm were following seas of 4-6 feet with 20-25 knots south wind; conditions we had been sailing for the prior 6 hours. During the squall, we saw heavy rain, a lot of lightning, and winds up to 50 knots. During a brief moderation of the storm, (it came in two phases) we were able to lower our main sail, and ride the storm out with our #3 jib.
We raised our main sail once the storm had passed around 11:15 pm CDT. Visibility was still poor, and the sea state was very lumpy from the storm. Shortly after raising our main and beginning to make headway, several crewmembers heard what sounded like a whistle. Around that same time, we encountered a bare poled sailboat to starboard, and we suspected the whistle came from that boat attempting to alert us to its presence. Hearing the whistle certainly heightened our senses that we should be vigilant for others given the nature of the storm that just occurred.
A minute or two after hearing the whistle, a crewmember spotted a faint light perhaps 1/4 to 1/2 mile to port, and this light after 1 minute was confirmed by other crew members. We continued on our current course for two or three minutes until we had an appropriate angle to tack over to the light. We brought our spot light on deck. As we drew closer, we were able to see other lights, and we signaled in the direction with our spot light. Our signal was returned with flashes from the lights in the distance. At that time we became certain we were headed toward a vessel (or person) in distress and we made the decision to lower our main sail and proceed under power. We started the motor and verbally notated the time as 11:30 CST. The sails on our boat were taken down and stowed.
As we approached we were able to discern the outline of a turtled hull with several people standing on it. Wind conditions at this point were around 15-20 knots, very confused sea state of 3-5 foot waves. At this time another Sociable crew member notified the Coast Guard via VHF radio of the situation, and this crew member took over sole responsibility of manning the VHF radio communication while the other crew began the rescue procedures. We attempted radio transmission several times without response from the USCG. A nearby vessel Vayu was able to relay to us that the coast guard was acknowledging our calls. Once we were within hailing distance, the Wingnuts crew told us that there were six crewmembers with the boat with two other crew members missing in the water. This information was relayed to the Coast Guard we requested assistance in the search efforts for the 2 missing crew members.
Five of the Wingnuts crew were standing on the overturned hull of the vessel, with a sixth crew member clinging to the stern of the boat in the water. Our first priority was to rescue the man in the water. With unknown amounts of rigging and lines in the water around Wingnuts, we needed to be careful not to approach too close as to foul our own prop. We also needed to keep a close lookout for the other two missing crew still in the water.
We deployed our lifesling off the starboard stern of Sociable, throwing it towards the man in the water, however Sociable was just far enough away so that the sling was still about 5 feet from the man. He attempted to swim to reach the sling but Sociable’s drift was not allowing him to reach it. He was clearly very weak at this point. We retrieved the sling and made another pass closer in and were then able to put the slings rope easily within reach of this crewmember, and we pulled him to the transom of Sociable. This large gentleman was physically exhausted, and it took four of Sociable's crew to lift him aboard our vessel. We assessed his condition as mildly hypothermic, and he was vomiting a lot of water. At this point we launched a handheld flare so other boats could see us, but determined it was creating too much smoke and was interfering with our rescue mission. Our estimate is that it took 15 minutes to get this first victim on board Sociable.
We made subsequent circles around Wingnuts while towing our lifesling. The Wingnuts crew jumped from their hull into the water and swam a few yards to reach the lifesling and/or the line it was attached to. On the first subsequent pass, we pulled one of the Wingnuts crew into Sociable. On the next two passes, we pulled two crew members aboard at once. Total time to get next 5 victims aboard Sociable was 10 minutes.
As the individuals came aboard and went below decks on Sociable we instructed the crew to get their wet clothes off and we gave them blankets. One individual was showing signs of hypothermia. He was placed in a sleeping bag and monitored. After about 30 to 45 minutes he was improving.
One of the Wingnuts crew we brought aboard mentioned that he thought the 2 missing crewmembers were still underneath Wingnuts, possibly still attached to the boat by their tethers. While this crewmember was standing with us in Sociable’s cockpit, a Sociable crewmember, asked out loud "should we try to have a Sociable crewmember go underneath Wingnuts to check for the missing 2." The Wingnuts crewmember immediately said we should not, it was too dangerous, with the rolling seas, and lines, or rigging that were loose underneath Wingnuts. Sociable’s crew in the cockpit agreed. As we received this information, we relayed it to the Coast Guard, telling them we had strong reason to believe the missing people were under Wingnuts, including a request that a diver be available to assist with the rescue.
At that time, we were able to see nearby racing boats headed to assist. We noted which boats were available to help, and also co-coordinated a grid system for boats to look for the missing crew members. We launched several parachute flares upon the suggestion of the Coast Guard. We also noted several flares from a nearby boat Vayu. Sailboats from the Mac Race began arriving soon after we had the 6 crew members aboard, we estimate that 15-20 boats arrived on location within the hour of our first VHF transmission.
We launched subsequent parachute flares 45 minutes later at the request of the Coast Guard in order to aid the rescue boat/helicopter in ascertaining our position. Ahead of the arrival of USGS Search boat 375, USGS helicopter 6265 conducted a search pattern in the vicinity of the incident. It was probably 45 minutes after we had recovered the 6 crew, while we continued to circle Wingnuts looking for signs of the other 2 crew, that a Coast Guard helicopter arrived. The Coast Guard helicopter made passes through the area with their search light on the water, but then seemed to go far off in the distance before returning for another pass of our immediate area. We were informed via radio that there were no divers available to assist with the rescue, either from the helicopter or rescue boat.
Upon arrival on the scene, the Coast Guard rescue boat used what appeared to be a boat hook to tap on the hull of Wingnuts. They also attempted to position their vessel in a manner to provide some visibility under the hull of Wingnuts. Upon hearing/seeing no signs of life, the rescue boat began conducting its own search pattern for 30 minutes before heading back to Charlevoix or Petoskey/Harbor Springs.
At this point, we asked the Coast Guard what they wanted us to do with the 6 Wingnuts crew; the reply was to "standby." While the Wingnuts crew seemed to be ok, we were worried that shock might set in and one or more of them would need more medical attention. We then told the Coast Guard that we wanted to proceed to port to get the Wingnuts crew to medical personnel. Sociable determined our closet port would be Charlevoix, and we communicated to Coast Guard that we were heading there. At 2:15 CDT we left the scene, plotted a course and motored for about 2.5 hours before arriving at the Charlevoix Coast Guard station where we dropped off the six Wingnuts crew. Two ambulances were waiting at the Coast Guard station upon arrival, although all six crew refused medical attention.
Lessons Learned from incident
1. The lifesling overboard system was the key to a prompt rescue. The system was easy to deploy (even with one failed “throw” attempt), and the combination of the floating line and the inflatable harness we were able to quickly retrieve the 6 crewmembers of Wingnuts.
2. The whistle sound definitely put Sociable into a “heads up” mode and was the start to building awareness outside the boat. The light on lifejacket created a “needle in a haystack” opportunity for rescue in the middle of the night. Without these two separate safety devises, Sociable would have continued racing North, away from Wingnuts.
3. Separating radio communication from the rescue activities above decks was a huge key to our success. With 12 crew aboard Sociable, we had plenty of crew for each of these important but totally separate parts of the rescue operation. Down below decks at the nav station allowed for calm and quiet communication with the Coast guard and other boats, it also allowed us to write down boats, key data, etc.
4. Chicago Yacht Clubs’ safety gear for this race was used extensively. Lifesling, Harnesses (with lights), whistles, throw rope, parachute and handheld flares, Spotlight, first aid kit, annual MOB certification all played a role in a successful rescue.
5. Other MAC boats created immediate “search party” for the two missing crew members.
6. We grossly misunderstood the mission and protocols of the USCG in their response and rescue capabilities. Don’t assume the Coast Guard will assist; plan to manage rescue operations yourself. If you get help great, but don’t count on it, particularly offshore at night.
7. We needed to ascertain the circumstances of the missing crew earlier. While the crew of Wingnuts coming on board of Sociable were in some level of shock, we needed to get more information (about them being tethered underneath Wingnuts) earlier in the event there was an air pocket to survive under.
8. We did not have a lightning strategy aboard Sociable during the squall. We needed to have crew trained on what to do in event of a lightning strike.
9. An organized boat. Particularly for the MAC, we emphasize that everything on the boat has a place. As part of our pre-race safety crew discussion, we played a game of where Sociable safety equipment was kept (example: “Cathy, where are the two fire extinguishers?”) Each crew member was asked a question. When the rescue happened, we were organized and didn’t have to look for items.
Likely the biggest open question among the Sociable crew after this incident is the use of tethers in this race. While we understand the merits of “staying attached to your boat”, we believe this is more of an ocean requirement rather than a fresh water sailboat race with 300 boats, relatively moderate water temperature, and boats that have experienced crew. While not unanimous, we like our chances better floating in Lake Michigan for an hour or two (or longer) waiting for our crew, or another boat finding and retrieving us. Obviously this only works with a life jacket or harness, a light, a whistle, and even a personal EPIRB.
Report Submitted July 2011
Bob Arzbaecher Owner and Skipper
Brian Adams Licensed Captain, Watch Captain
Dave Patrick Watch Captain
Matt Younkle Watch Captain
Subsequent to the event
The Coast Guard at daybreak sent a team of divers to the Wingnuts overturned hull. The found the two missing crewmembers still tethered in harnesses to the boat and dead. Autopsy reports showed the cause of death head trauma and drowning.
The boat was left alone, righted itself, then “ghost” sailed into Grey’s reef, 20 miles away. It was recovered from the reef, towed to land, and presently is considered a total loss by the insurance company.
For their rescue, the crew of Sociable received the U.S. Sailing’s Arthur B. Hansen Rescue medal and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Captain David P. Dobbins Award for excellence in Search and Rescue.
Bob Arzbaecher is President and CEO of Actuant Corporation, parent company of Marinco and Mastervolt
Comment from Bill Seifert, author of Offshore Sailing- 200 Passagemaking Tips, published by McGraw Hill.
"Like the crew of Sociable, I have been involved with a rescue in which Coast Guard exhibited gross incompetence. There are several experienced sailors who are also authors, and I would be happy to join them in teaching the Coast Guard about wind, current, and other factors resulting in their standard search pattern being a waste of time and resources for at least 60% of the search area."