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Adrenaline rush: Cup cats and high altitude

The wind was tearing at my orange jumpsuit. It was short at the ankles, and I looked as if I were on the lam from prison, getting treed by a K-9 unit, except that this tree was Auckland’s Sky Tower, rising more than 1,000 feet into the air and I was standing outside on a 4-foot-wide steel grating 630 feet above ground.

The writer got a bird's eye view of sailing mecca Auckland, New Zealand, from this perch on the Sky Tower.

In front and behind: the yawning abyss. Inside: the tiny troll that goaded me into this mess but now was hiding behind my spleen. Meanwhile, my prefrontal cortex whined: What the hell are you doing, comb-over boy? Showing off to people half your age? Overdosing on dopamine? Creating a Facebook moment? Well, yes, but …

The conspicuous attire is the requisite costume for the Skywalk, an exquisitely scenic but slightly vertiginous jaunt. It’s high-altitude sightseeing while tethered to an overhead rail and was inspired by a few Volvo Ocean Race sailors who did this during a stopover here. Besides, if Grant Dalton, age 55, can race up the steps to San Francisco’s Coit Tower three times in a row to prep for racing in the next America’s Cup, I reckoned I should be OK taking a walk on a leash.

Dalton and his boys of Team New Zealand were very much on my mind as I gazed down on the famous Viaduct Basin. They’re betting the house, allegedly to the tune of NZ$120 million that they can bring the Cup back to Auckland. If they fail, it might be the end of an era. If they succeed, it could mean a return of the fat years as this harbor — chock-full of fancy boats, framed by museums, shops, hotels and restaurants — would become the focal point once more. Viaduct Basin, once a run-down area, greatly benefited from investments after New Zealand’s Cup triumph in 1995 and has become a symbol for sailing as an economic engine in this country.

Much has happened since then. The Kiwis defended the Cup successfully in 2000 but lost it to the Swiss in 2003. The Swiss defended it in 2007 before losing it to U.S. software tycoon Larry Ellison in 2010. He hired legendary New Zealand skipper Russell Coutts, the guy who’d won it for the Swiss in 2003 and the Kiwis in 1995. Ellison and Coutts moved heaven and hell to turn sailing into a spectator sport by taking the Cup to windy San Francisco, bringing the races inshore, developing advanced television technology and commissioning giant AC72 catamarans, which don’t sail through but above the water. Now it’s the X Games for billionaires.

Then came May 9, 2013, and the catastrophic capsize of the Artemis boat that drowned Olympic champion Andrew “Bart” Simpson. This accident didn’t just kill a top sailor; it also threw the entire event into a full tailspin. Races had to be canceled, tickets had to be refunded, safety regulations were ratcheted up and confusion reigned about the schedule. And no AC72 rides for the media, as in the early days. Way too dangerous now.

In the crucible of criticism are these new 72-foot cats. They are powerful, fast, complex and sinfully expensive. They take 80,000 to 100,000 hours to build and 35 burly men to launch. Propelled by a wing that’s 131 feet tall, they carry as much as 6,200 square feet of “canvas” downwind, yet they weigh only 13,000 pounds.

If the breeze is up, they zip along above the surface on canting and articulating daggerboards that are shaped like winglets below the water to produce vertical lift. This mode of transportation is called “foiling,” and it produces top speeds beyond 40 knots. Sailors wear helmets, buoyancy aid, body armor, locator devices and oxygen. They resemble fighter pilots rather than ordinary seamen. And small mistakes can have grave consequences.

High tech, high risk

Tim Smyth of Core Builders Composites

What if Artemis crashed because of structural failure rather than operator error? How safe are these boats? Auckland was a good place to get expert opinions about this because five of the seven AC72s were built there, by Cookson Boats and by Core Builders Composites in Warkworth, a 45-minute drive north. “The AC72 with the foils and the wing is the consummate builder’s challenge, bar none, period,” says Mick Cookson, who has been building composite raceboats since 1979. “Great not to have to bolt lumps of lead to composite carbon structures. They’re the ultimate bit of kit.”

Lightness and stiffness are what makes these sailing machines tick. To achieve those qualities, builders use prepreg carbon fiber that is vacuum bagged over honeycomb core and cured in an autoclave oven. Cookson calls it a high-risk bet. “You look what goes into a carbon chain plate and how it’s literally just held to the boat by some carbon and glue. Or the skins of the hull and the bulkhead — you look at it and think, That’s not right; this doesn’t make sense. But it works.”

Except when it doesn’t, as on oneAustralia, which broke apart and sank in less than two minutes during the Cup in ’95. Like Young America, which cracked and nearly sank at the Cup in 2000, or Beau Geste, an 80-foot IRC racer that cracked offshore race and is parked in Cookson’s driveway. And now Artemis.

“I’m not surprised someone busted in half because you can get it so wrong with a catamaran. It’s like assembling a tree house, whereas a monohull is like a big sausage,” Dalton told the New Zealand Herald. “Artemis showed a team that doesn’t quite get its numbers right can have a catastrophic and tragic outcome.”

It’s a builder’s worst nightmare, right? “It is,” says Tim Smyth, a veteran of composite construction who has been building Cup yachts and boats for the Volvo Ocean Race since 1989 and runs CBC, which is owned by Ellison. He points out that the IACC keelboats that were used in the Cup from 1992 to 2007 also were dangerous but for different reasons. “They broke in half. They could suck you down. You’re far more likely to get hit by something bunched up in that small cockpit with all those highly loaded ropes and winches around you and a massive boom swinging low, ready to take your head off. I was on the Spanish boat [in 1999] when Martin Wizner was killed. A halyard block at the bottom of the mast broke free, went flying, put a big gash in someone’s shoulder, bounced off and hit [Wizner] in the side of the head and killed him instantly.”

Mick Cookson of Cookson Boats

In Smyth’s mind, the capsize of Oracle Team USA’s AC72 last fall and the ensuing discussion about the design clouded the fact that the sailors might have been pushing too hard. “That should never have happened. We didn’t need to crash that,” he says. “It’s like some of these fighter pilots who have to ditch the plane because they got a bit radical.”

If Oracle hadn’t capsized, Smyth suggests, the cause of the Artemis accident “would have been seen for what it is: a broken boat, like that block that came off and hit someone.”

Money and time

Cookson and Smyth are reluctant to speculate about the cause of the Artemis accident. “There are any number of things that can cause a catastrophic failure,” Cookson says. “There are things that you would do totally different. I’m sure that’s the same in every campaign.”

But he wasn’t shy about lashing out at other stakeholders in the process. “Yacht designers are notoriously arrogant, and engineers run a close second,” he says. “They don’t run the KISS principle. They think more complicated is more sophisticated. Therefore, that’s the way it should be, even though they designed and engineered something that’s virtually impossible to build with success.”

There are best practices for the construction of every piece, Cookson says. “For any particular part or component — a hull or a deck or a bulkhead — there is a method that’s better than others.” The two limiting factors are money, of course, but also time. CNC machines help to build parts and tools faster and more accurately, but there’s something else: a razor-thin margin of error.

“You don’t have much time to get it wrong because the schedule is so oppressive, and that’s risky,” Smyth says. “You need to be really diligent to make sure your product doesn’t fail during build, you don’t have a screw-up and you meet your timeline. You have to push hard.” The whole process, he adds, is a race before the actual race.

What was the first thing that went through your mind when you heard about the Artemis incident, I asked Cookson. “Check the fine print in the contract,” he shot back with a dash of gallows humor. “With these boats, we joke about the concrete warranty. When they leave the concrete, the warranty is over.”

So did this answer my question about the safety of these boats? Not really because we don’t know what was said and done behind closed doors, but the truth will play out on the water soon enough.

My little chautauqua in the lower troposphere above this lovely city drew to a close, and the moment to shed my prison garb was nigh. I did get my picture and my video taken, thank you very much. It’s a small consolation for missing out on that other dopamine experiment — riding shotgun on an AC72. But hey, it still built confidence and served as a reminder that what really counts is inside. I suspect that’s not just true for guys who are flirting with a comb-over but for racing boats, as well. Take that, tiny troll.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

August 2013 issue