Chicago sailor who fell overboard during Race to Mackinac remains missing

Members of the Chicago sailing community say they’re heartbroken as the search continued Sunday for a sailor who fell overboard during the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac.

Jon Santarelli, 53, of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, was one of 13 Imedi team members from Chicago and the suburbs competing in the 333-mile race to Mackinac Island.

After the race kicked off Saturday, Santarelli was moving toward the back of the boat when it hit a large wave, causing him to fall into the water, said Rear Commodore Nick Berberian of the Chicago Yacht Club.

Team members who witnessed the fall reported Santarelli’s life jacket didn’t automatically inflate as it was supposed to when it hit the water, Berberian said.

The crew executed safety procedures and threw out additional lifesaving devices, he said, but Santarelli slipped under the water.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Chicago Fire and police crews, members of the Chicago Yacht Club and all nearby race competitors spent hours searching about 47 acres of Lake Michigan, yacht club officials said.

Some authorities continued their search Sunday, but Santarelli still had not been found.

“This is an enormous tragedy to the entire sailing community,” Berberian said. “This was something Jon was very much looking forward to — passionately looking forward to — and unfortunately (it) has had a very tragic ending.”

With more than 10 years of experience, Santarelli was no stranger to the dangers and risks associated with offshore racing, friend Matt Knighton said.

That didn’t stop him from racing the city’s largest, fastest boats and spending nearly every day on the water in the summer.

When Knighton started racing in Chicago nine years ago, Santarelli was the first person with whom he sailed, he said.

They and a tight-knit group of sailors have since become close friends who often race together.

“Jon was a fixture of that group, and that’s why it’s so hard to imagine what’s happened right now,” Knighton said.

“It’s hard to pick up all the pieces.”

Santarelli always has had an active lifestyle, Knighton said, pointing to his participation in triathlons and his frequent motorcycle rides. According to his LinkedIn page, Santarelli spent the last 19 years as a project leader at Lisle-based Molex Incorporated.

Despite his other interests, Knighton said, Santarelli’s biggest smile, heartiest laugh and funniest jokes always emerged while he was racing. “He was a lifeblood of the Chicago racing community,” he said.

With strong northerly winds and steep waves, race conditions have been challenging for the 288 boats that took off from the Chicago Lighthouse, yacht club officials said. A few dozen teams had bowed out of the race as of Sunday morning, with many saying their retirement was related to wave heights.

The Imedi team was about four or five miles northeast of Navy Pier when Santarelli fell overboard, yacht club officials said.