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Death of sailors prompts boat race safety debate

A vigorous debate about the safety rules to be applied to the upcoming Chicago to Mackinac sailboat race has been prompted by a boating accident last summer in which two Saginaw sailors died. Their deaths occurred as a consequence of the collapse of their boat, WingNuts, and the inability to rescue them from the waters after it capsized.

The debate centers around the basis for determining the stability of a boat. Boats are assigned a different stability rating depending on how far over (how many degrees) a boat can be knocked while sailing before it is unable to recover and right itself, instead capsizing and endangering its crew.

Safety advocates point to last year's tragic deaths as showing a need to heighten the stability requirements for boats seeking to compete in the race. Some question whether the stability determinations are really accurate, as the stability rating assigned to the WingNuts boat last summer was 107 degrees, making it eligible to compete under the competition's rules. An investigation of the accident stated that some ratings systems would have only assigned the same boat a stability rating of between 74 to 100.7 degrees.

The rules for the race last year required Category 3 stability, under which the WingNuts qualified, given the minimum requirement of 103 degrees. Category 2 stability requires a minimum stability index of 110 degrees, but some note that imposing that level of safety as an entry point would have eliminated not only WingNuts, but about a third of the boats which competed last year. Even the previous 103 degree stability requirement eliminated six boats from last year's competition.

Source: Detroit Free Press, "Chicago to Mackinac sailboat race organizers debate safety rules," Peggy Walsh-Sarniecki, April 16, 2012

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