Improving Sailing Safety

2018 Mackinac Race tragedy spurs strong recommendations for racing sailors using inflatable PFDs. // Photography by Gretchen Dorian
Clas Nilstoft’s Glory
Clas Nilstoft’s Glory, an Alerion 28-foot sailboat, races in heavy air conditions during the Little Traverse Yacht Club’s annual UGOTTA Regatta on Little Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan.

The tragic death last summer of a Chicago-to-Mackinac sailor from the Transpac 52 Imedi led to a re-examination of life-saving techniques and equipment for sailors. Jon Santarelli, 53, went overboard near the start of the race, and his suspender-type personal flotation device did not inflate. Because the body had been in the water a week before it was found, the Cook County Coroner’s office burned all the clothing, including the PFD, in a biohazard waste incinerator without informing the investigators. But the CO2 cartridge from the PFD was available, and it was clear it was never punctured.

The failure of Santarelli’s PFD probably contributed to his death, but it was not the only factor, authorities said. A joint report from the Chicago Yacht Club and US Sailing, released at the end of February, said wind speed was the biggest issue hampering the Imedi crew’s efforts to save Santarelli. Heavy winds impaired the precise boat handling needed to get close enough to the victim.

The Imedi accident report had two main messages, said Sarah Renz, this year’s Chicago to Mackinac chair: Don’t underestimate the importance of practice, and maintain and inspect your life-saving equipment.

How easily an accident like Imedi’s could happen became clear to Tim Prophit of St. Clair Shores, owner of the North American 40 Fast Tango. His bowman went overboard last summer at 25 knots after the spinnaker wouldn’t drop. The combination of the high winds and the trapped spinnaker made it nearly impossible to turn the boat to rescue the man overboard.

“What happened was just prior to the start, someone ran the spinnaker halyard forward, heavy wind, there was a knot in it,” Prophit said. “The knot would not go back the other way through the block.”

Fortunately, a nearby boat picked up Fast Tango’s bowman.

Tour of the Bay race
Sailboats race through Little Traverse Bay for the highly anticipated Tour of the Bay. The race follows the Chicago Yacht Club’s Mackinac Race and the Bell’s Bayview Mackinac Race on Lake Huron.

The Chicago Yacht Club updated its safety requirements following the Imedi accident to require that 50 percent of the adult crew and 100 percent of minors must complete US Sailing’s Safety at Sea seminar.

The Chicago race committee also is recommending all crew be equipped with Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) for the 2021 Mackinac race. (The 2021 race committee is not required to go along with the 2019 committee’s recommendation.) Under this scenario, each sailor would wear a Personal AIS Beacon, which sends out signals marking his or her position in the water. The boat must be equipped to pick up these signals.

Chief Warrant Officer Matthew James, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard station in Chicago, recommended competitive sailors spend time training in unfamiliar positions during man-overboard drills. The reason is the first one or two people who see a member of the crew go overboard must become pointers, never taking their eyes off the person in the water. Someone who has never worked on the bow or mainsail, for example, may find themselves having to cover that spot.

Using self-inflating PFDs remains a personal choice. The U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t endorse any particular type of PFD. The advantage of the inflatable life jacket is that they are more comfortable. “The con of the inflatable life jacket is that they require more maintenance,” James said.

The Coast Guard uses a model in which a pill dissolves in water to inflate the vest. That type requires more maintenance than the type that inflates when it hits the water. They replace their pills monthly. They also inspect and orally inflate them monthly.

“I check every time I put that lifejacket on,” James said. “I inspect the firing mechanism and make sure everything is aligned, CO2 is seated. It takes 10 seconds. Convenience comes with a cost sometimes.”

Prophit is not confident about inflatable life jackets. “Inflatable PFDs fail. They’re mechanical. They also deactivate,” Prophit said. “I have a dinghy vest. It’s foam and it works fine.”

Most of the crew of the C&C 35 Contender, however, prefer the inflatable type of life jacket, said owner Gary Graham of Grosse Pointe. “It seems like every year, they come up with a better style, so people are more likely to wear them,” Graham said.

To read the full Imedi report, see

Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki is a sailing enthusiast and retired Detroit Free Press reporter.

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