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updated: 7/19/2011 4:59 AM

Arlington Hts. man part of Mackinac race rescue crew

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  • The sailboat WingNuts floats upside down in Lake Michigan on Monday after it capsized during the annual Chicago-to-Mackinac sailing race. Two crew members died.

    The sailboat WingNuts floats upside down in Lake Michigan on Monday after it capsized during the annual Chicago-to-Mackinac sailing race. Two crew members died.
    Associated Press


A 12-person crew, including a 19-year-old Arlington Heights man, may have prevented an even greater loss of life when it pulled six sailors from the treacherous Lake Michigan waters that killed two people during the annual Race to Mackinac early Monday morning.

The crew of WingNuts, a 35-foot vessel, dropped their main sail, tethered themselves to the boat and prepared for the worst as their craft rocked in 4- to 6-foot waves, coupled with 70 mph winds about 11:20 p.m. Sunday.

Their vessel, among hundreds taking part in the annual race from Chicago to Mackinac Island, was near North Fox Island off the northwest Michigan coast when disaster struck, claiming the lives of two Michigan residents. The deaths were the first in race's 103-year history.

Adam Flanders of Arlington Heights was onboard his uncle's boat Sociable, which rushed to the aid of the stranded crew members struggling in the dark lake water.

"I strongly believe that if the crew of the sailing vessel Sociable did not do what they did, we could have been making eight next of kin notifications," said Lt. Adam Saurin, a Coast Guard spokesman.

Adam Flanders's father Michael, reached Monday night, said the crew of Sociable, which included Brian Nagle of Libertyville and 10 Wisconsin residents, made a decision in Michigan not to speak of the rescue.

But Saurin said: "They did heroic things in the early morning hours, especially in the darkness. They coordinated the other boats in the area, assigned them different search areas."

Flanders said his son is an instructor at the Columbia Yacht Club in Chicago and was riding on his uncle Robert Arzbaecher's Milwaukee-based boat when the rescue was made about 75 miles from the race's finish.

"He started way back when he was a young kid at Lake Arlington," Michael Flanders said.

First responding crew members knocked on the hull of the capsized boat in hopes of a response, but it wasn't until about eight hours later when a dive team found the two experienced sailors lifeless under the vessel, Saurin said.

Skipper Mark Morley, 51, and Suzanne Bickel, both of Saginaw, Mich., could not free themselves from their harnesses while wearing their life vests in the 70-degree water, Saurin said.

"The WingNuts crew is indebted to the crew of the Sociable and are heartbroken over the loss of their crew members, Mark and Suzanne," the survivors said in a statement that described the accident.

Competing sailors described the conditions as some of the nastiest in the history of the race, which unleashed wildly shifting winds, lightning bolts and hail.

"They knew it was coming, but it just sort of caught the boat the wrong way," said Chip Cummings of Rockford, whose 16-year-old son, C.J., was among the survivors.

WingNuts is based in Saginaw, and seven of the eight crew members were from Michigan. The other was from Chicago, where the race started at Navy Pier for some competitors on Friday but for most on Saturday.

"It was among the nastiest, if not the nastiest, that I've seen," said Adam Hollerbach, 33, of Detroit, who sailed aboard the 70-foot vessel Details and arrived in harbor just as the storm gained strength.

Morley, 51, and Bickel, 40, were boat racing veterans. Morley had participated in six Chicago-Mackinac races and Bickel had taken part in two, said Rachelle Treiber, spokeswoman for the Chicago Yacht Club.

The vessel overturned about 13 miles northwest of Charlevoix and about 270 miles from Chicago. Air and water temperatures early Monday were in the low 70s. The occupants wore life preservers, the Coast Guard said.

Cummings told The Associated Press his son, a cousin of Mark Morley, and other crewmates pressed devices on their vests, alerting the Coast Guard that they were in peril.

Cummings said Stuart Morley, 15, Mark Morley's nephew, was able to undo the harness that was attaching him and the other sailors to the boat, then released C.J.'s harness. That enabled both of them to clamber onto the hull.

The other rescued sailors were Mark's brother Peter Morley, 47; John Dent, 50; Stan Dent, 51; and Lee Purcell, 46.

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

• Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.