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Race To Mackinac Institutes New Safety Measures After Drowning Of Sailor Jon Santarelli Last Year

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The 111th annual Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac begins on Friday, with new safety measures in place after the death of sailor Jon Santarelli in last year's race.

This year, all crews in the race must conduct three man overboard drills before setting sail. In the past, the drills were only recommended, but this year they are required for 75 percent of each team.

"Due to the tragedy last year with Jon, we really wanted to focus on safety," Chicago Yacht Club on the water director Jay Kehoe said.

During the drills, a buoy tossed in the water stands in for the victim. One sailor on the boat locates and points to the victim as others work to sail the boat into a position to help.

The boat sails past the victim, performing what's known as a quick stop, slowly approaching the victim on the weather side before extending something for the victim to grab.

Santarelli was sailing on the Imedi, when he fell overboard and drowned in rough waters just after the start of last year's race. His body wasn't found for a week.

An investigation later determined his automatic inflatable life vest didn't work.

The report revealed, for the first time, that Santarelli was wearing was an "SSM-Barcelone" vest, which contained a "Hammar MA1 inflator."

Investigators were unable to analyze the vest because it was destroyed when Santarelli was cremated, but remnants from the burned inflator were recovered.

The report goes on to say the life jacket could have been 12 to 13 years old and a national expert tells CBS 2 the inflator inside should have been replaced every five years because it could deteriorate.

"Had the auto inflation worked, I don't think we would be here today, I'm pretty certain of that," Chicago Yacht Club Rear Commodore Nick Berberian said earlier this year.

According to the report, it was unknown if the inflator in Santarelli's vest had ever been replaced. His vest and the rest of the crews had been issued by the owner of the boat.

Jon Santarelli
Jon Santarelli (Source: Facebook)

This year, all participants are being asked to test their personal flotation devices, both automatic pumps and manual inflation.

"The big thing for us was not to repeat anything that happened last year," Kehoe said.

Also new this year, 50 percent of each crew is required to attend a two-day safety at sea course, including rescue drills and seminars on safety equipment.

The 333-mile race to Mackinac Island draws nearly 350 boats. Its risky challenges often are overshadowed by celebrations at the start and finish lines.

Santarelli's death has left its mark on the race.

"I think the legacy he left is enhanced safety protocols," Kehoe said.

The race's cruising division sets sail from Navy Pier at 3 p.m. Friday. The racing division takes off Saturday morning at 11 a.m.

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