Safety in question after capsize of Cup catamaran

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The capsize of the Artemis syndicate’s 72-foot America’s Cup catamaran and the loss of crewman Andrew “Bart” Simpson has left many wondering whether the super-big, super-fast, super-light AC72s are safe to race, which along with their exorbitant cost — $10 million to $15 million — may render the giant warhorses dinosaurs even before they begin competing.

Artemis Racing's AC72 capsized during training exercises on San Francisco Bay.

Thirteen days after the May 9 Artemis capsize, regatta director Iain Murray issued 37 safety recommendations based on findings of a blue-ribbon panel that interviewed skippers, designers, engineers, sailors and support-boat operators from the four Cup teams — 25 people in all. A week earlier, Cup management had told reporters the Artemis tragedy would not stop the regatta. Challenger trials will start as scheduled in July aboard AC72s on San Francisco Bay and culminate in September in the Cup finals regatta.

“The America’s Cup remains on track and will go ahead this summer,” said Tom Ehman, vice commodore of the Golden Gate Yacht Club, at a press briefing May 14 in San Francisco. He says the teams — challengers Artemis Racing, Luna Rossa Challenge and Emirates Team New Zealand, and defender Oracle Team USA — endorsed the panel and the charge it was given, and expect to start racing in July.

“There was not even a thought this morning [at a competitors’ meeting] other than keeping apace with the racing this summer,” Ehman said. He expects all the teams to compete, including Artemis, which has a second AC72 it can take to the starting line.

Murray’s safety recommendations address the sailors, the boats and race management. They include body armor to protect sailors against spine, puncture and impact wounds; an underwater breathing apparatus for each sailor that is portable and capable of hands-free operation; buoyancy aids with quick release mechanisms; stronger helmets; equipment that crewmen can use to lower themselves from the boat’s hull or trampoline during a capsize; training in escaping from beneath the trampoline in a capsize; and directives for the teams to look into an electronic head-count system and underwater crew locator devices. (Simpson reportedly was trapped for 10 minutes under Artemis.)

Recommendations addressing race management include lowering the wind limits for racing. Murray asked for a top wind speed of 20 knots in July, 21 knots in August and 23 knots in September — when the Cup finals are scheduled — and further adjustments to those limits if tide and sea state demand it.

He also is asking for flexible start times, which will affect the event’s much-ballyhooed television coverage, a reduction in Louis Vuitton Cup round-robins from seven to five so crews have more time for boat maintenance, and that skippers be able to exercise their best judgment and opt out of a race without penalty if they think conditions are unsafe.

Crewmenber Andrew Simpson died in the accident.

Murray’s report also calls for beefed-up rescue support — a minimum two rescue boats for each AC72 and no limit to how many a team may deploy; one diver and rescue swimmer on each rescue boat, along with defibrillators and rescue nets; at least one paramedic on one of the rescue boats; and one-way communications from the raceboat to its rescue craft.

Regarding the AC72s, Murray recommends that the teams together work out a third-party review and test of the structural integrity of the boats and rig; each team engage a third party to review and test the daggerboard rake control hydraulic systems for margin of safety and reliability; equipping the boats with some kind of crew restraints — cockpits, foot straps, handholds, and tether or belay points — to secure sailors during bearing-off maneuvers, severe deceleration or capsize; and making soft coverings and fairings, presumably including the trampoline, of transparent material so sailors and rescuers can better see where crewmembers are in the event of a capsize.

Murray presented the recommendations at a meeting with the four Cup teams and the America’s Cup Event Authority. He says a “majority” of the recommendations represent a consensus of the teams, based on the review committee’s findings, and that each competitor is responsible for the method of implementing those recommendations.

Even before the report, Murray expressed confidence in the AC72s. They “have exceeded all our expectations,” he says, though the challenge always remains “how to manage the incredible speed and dynamics that these boats have. We have to manage these expectations and at all times look after the safety of the crew.”

Patrizio Bertelli, president of the Italian team, Luna Rossa Challenge, at a May 17 news conference first proposed reducing the wind limits. He also asked for improvements in the helmets and body armor, and a better rescue protocol — water ambulances, professional divers, paramedics and helicopters, if necessary, along the race course to rescue, treat and transport sailors in the event of a capsize or other accident.

Nonetheless, he says, he and his team are not interested in changing boats. Standing with his team, he said he had discussed the matter with them, and they had given their AC72 a vote of confidence. “We’ve asked our sailors if they trust the boat, and they have said they trust the boat and can sail on it.”

Yet as condolences poured in for the widow and two young children of Simpson — a popular British Olympian who won gold in the Star in 2008 and silver in 2012 crewing for Iain Percy, Artemis’ sailing director — there weren’t a lot recommending the AC72s for the 35th Cup. Oracle Team USA owner Larry Ellison’s vision of a televised NASCAR-style America’s Cup raced in giant 40-knot catamarans at eye-popping, crash-and-burn speeds may itself be crashing and burning.

For starters, the cost of the AC72s is too high, says Scott MacLeod, managing director of the Stamford, Conn.-based U.S. office of WSM Communications, an international sports marketing and communications firm, and founder of the World Match Racing Tour. Russell Coutts, the U.S. team’s CEO, had hoped to draw a dozen challengers to the 34th America’s Cup, but there are only three. That could partly be attributed to the unfortunate timing of this Cup, coinciding with one of the worst economic downturns in memory.

But the cost of the boats — with their rigid wingsails and foils that lift their hulls out of the water — are over the top, MacLeod says. The tiny field “obviously shows that the costs have become prohibitive,” he says. Corporate sponsors can’t afford to play the game, so it is left to such benefactors as billionaire Ellison to shoulder the financial burden. “I think sponsors are out there at the right price,” he says, but those prices must start with a campaign budget that is economically sustainable.

Even Coutts has been singing that song recently. He told the New Zealand Herald last October that he realizes now, as the Cup defender, which chooses the type of boat that will be raced, that Team USA could have picked a much smaller catamaran, such as the AC45 that has been sailing in the popular preregatta AC World Series, and generated the kind of excitement and visual impact on television that he hoped to get with the 72 — at a much lower cost. He told an Italian reporter in March that whichever team wins, the 34th Cup likely will choose a smaller, less costly boat for the next Cup — one that is more affordable and will draw more entrants.

Yet for now it appears that the Cup will be raced in AC72s, and that has raised concerns about safety. “If you want to go NASCAR, do it, but NASCAR has spent millions on safety,” MacLeod says. “I don’t think this will be the end of it, unfortunately. I don’t. These guys haven’t even begun pushing yet.”

They have been trialing — and gingerly at that. MacLeod fears there could be more capsizes, more damage and more casualties. He says that if these boats start capsizing and breaking apart during racing, the teams won’t be able to repair their boats in a day or a week or even a month, which means by the end of the regatta there may not be enough boats left standing for the finale — the Cup regatta. “If you watch a NASCAR race, you’ve got 40 cars on the track,” MacLeod says. “You can break 20 of them, and you’ve still got 20 racing.”

Cup, Coast Guard and law enforcement officials addressed the media in the wake of the tragedy.

Yet not everyone is panning the AC72. “Rather than questioning the AC72 itself, I would think that whether the AC72 is appropriate in its current form for racing on San Francisco Bay in July, August, September is probably the question that should be asked,” says Brett Bakewell-White, referring to the afternoon sea breezes that often blow more than 30 knots. Bakewell-White is the lead designer and technical director for Team Korea’s White Tiger Challenge, which withdrew after failing to raise enough money. “Originally, the class had two wings available, and if fitted with the smaller wing, the boats may have been easier to handle than they are currently.”

It appears reducing the wind limits may be Cup management’s answer to this problem. “Having said this, I think you have to look at what has been achieved by Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa over the New Zealand summer, and how they have safely handled significantly stronger winds and rough seas without major problems and managed to sail over very long training periods,” Bakewell-White says. “They have shown that it is possible to sail these boats reliably and safely. We have yet to see if this is also possible when sailed in anger [in a real race].”

It remains unclear what happened aboard the Artemis boat except that during training on San Francisco Bay the catamaran capsized between noon and 1 p.m. in winds of 18 to 20 knots, according to America’s Cup Management. The boat broke apart and Simpson, 36, became trapped under it for about 10 minutes, according to most accounts. Chase boats on site recovered 11 crewmembers from the water, but Simpson was missing. After getting him out from under the boat, medics administered CPR, afloat and at the dock, for more than 20 minutes. Thirty minutes after the capsize he was pronounced dead.

The Golden Gate Yacht Club, as trustee of the 34th Cup, appointed a review committee — a “highly experienced panel of sailing and safety-at-sea experts” — to review the safety of training and racing AC72s and issue recommendations to the trustee, the organizers and teams. The committee included race director Murray, an Australian, who is chairman; Sally Lindsay Honey, a member of US Sailing’s safety-at-sea committee, deputy chairwoman; American John Craig, a board member of US Sailing and the Cup’s principal race officer; Chuck Hawley, chairman of US Sailing’s safety-at-sea committee and vice president of product information at West Marine; and Frenchman Vincent Lauriot-Prevost, co-founder of the French multihull design firm Van Peteghem Lauriot Prevost, whose designs have set more records than any other design team.

In the wake of the accident, Sailing Team Germany withdrew its squad from the Youth America’s Cup, which is scheduled to be sailed Sept. 1-4 on San Francisco Bay, before the America’s Cup finals. “We can’t and we won’t take responsibility for sending our young team over there,” team founder Oliver Schwall says in a statement. “The death of one sailor is reason enough [to withdraw]. We also feel that our decision has to send an important message after this disaster. It’s time [for organizers] to start thinking.”

However, Murray said at the May 14 press conference that although the German Sailing Federation had withdrawn its support for the team’s participation in the Youth America’s Cup, the team members still wanted to come and race. “We’re giving them the opportunity to attend the event,” Murray says. “They may well make it, but if they don’t there are other teams in line waiting to come.”

Should the America’s Cup be sailed in multihulls? Are the AC72s too dangerous? We’d like to hear from you. Send your thoughts to editorial@soundingspub.com.

See related article:

- Has the Cup gone off the rails?

July 2013 issue