America's Cup: Andrew Simpson's death reawakens safety debate

Andrew Simpson's tragic death on the waters of San Francisco Bay has put the America's Cup under the microscope for all the wrong reasons.

Britain's double Olympic medallist, 36, died when he was trapped under the upturned hulls of his boat after a capsize during training.

Organisers, the police and Coast Guards have begun investigating, with attention from inside and outside the sport inevitably focused on safety concerns rather than on the thrilling spectacle of a prestigious old event.

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This is such a tragedy. The only solace I can find is he died doing something he loved

Ben Ainslie

The America's Cup has always been seen as the pinnacle of inshore yacht racing, known as much for controversy, complex rules, court-room wrangles and rich men posturing as cutting-edge design, world-class sailors and absorbing racing. In many ways, that was all part of the allure.

But the 34th America's Cup was supposed to drag the 162-year-old event, the oldest trophy in sport, into the 21st century.

The tag line for the 2013 edition is "the world's fastest boats, the world's best sailors".

Revolutionary, high-speed multihulls made with futuristic technology were devised to appeal to a new generation and make the sport more exciting to watch, both from the shore and on TV. The Cup is often described as the "Formula 1" of sailing but organisers want it to be more like Nascar, with similar thrills and spills.

However, Simpson's death has brought renewed questions about the new designs amid continuing concerns over safety. BBC Sport looks at the issues.

The boats

Traditionally, the America's Cup has been sailed in sleek, single-hulled yachts with deep keels, competing head-to-head. But the slow, tactical nature of the racing was perhaps more for the sailing purist than any wider audience.

"The past America's Cups have been like watching paint dry," said Jimmy Spithill, skipper for defending champions Oracle.

The new breed of radical catamarans, called AC72s, were brought in by US software billionaire Larry Ellison and four-time America's Cup-winning skipper Russell Coutts after their Oracle team won the last Cup in 2010.

AC72 specifications

Oracle Racing
  • Length: 22m (72.2ft)
  • Beam: 14m (45.9ft)
  • Weight: 5,900kg (13,000lbs)
  • Maximum draught: 4.4m (14ft)
  • Mast height: 40m (131ft)
  • Wing area: 260 sq m
  • Jib area: 80 sq m
  • Gennaker area: 320 sq m
  • Top speed: 45 knots
  • Crew: 11+1 guest

The twin-hulled carbon-fibre giants - unique but designed within certain parameters - are 72ft long with a mast 131ft high and solid "wing sails" to improve speed and stability. The wing enables the boats to race in anything from five to 30 knots, maximising the chances of racing on any given day - essential for TV.

Recent developments have seen "foils", which lift the hulls out of the water to make them go even faster, sometimes more than twice the speed of the wind and up to 45 knots (50mph).

In the America's Cup World Series - events held around the world in the build-up to the Cup - crews raced in AC45s, vessels similar to the Cup version but smaller to enable the sailors to practise while the 72s were being built. The nature of these boats means supreme fitness is at a premium among the sailors.

But the cutting-edge design brings with it a host of unknown factors.

"These America's Cup boats are new, they're very high powered and the loads on them are huge," said British Olympic sailing team chief Stephen Park.

"That brings with it the excitement they were looking for in the America's Cup but these boats are untrodden waters for sailing. There are a lot of unknowns and things being tested."

Safety

To put Simpson's death in context, it is only the second death of an America's Cup sailor during training after Spain's Martin Wizner was killed when he was hit by a piece of broken equipment in 1999. No-one has died in an America's Cup race since its inception around the Isle of Wight in 1851.

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I lost my closest friend of over 25 years, the friendliest, kindest man I have ever met. I cannot believe he is no longer with us

But the capsize of Artemis is the second major incident involving an AC72. Last October, the Oracle team flipped their boat, destroying the wing. No-one was hurt, but it added to concerns that the new design could, in some circumstances, be too powerful to control. Artemis also reported structural damage to its front beam last year.

Catamarans are inherently stable, despite having no keel, but when the wind causes them to lean and sail on one hull it is the skill of the sailors that keeps them from tipping. With the size, speed and power of these yachts, a split-second delay can take them past the point of no return.

In certain manoeuvres, the downwind hull can get buried in the water, causing the yacht to "pitchpole" or flip end-over-end.

"The harder you push the accelerator, the faster you go, but there's a chance you hit the wall," said Spithill recently.

With only two months to go before the action is set to begin, sailors and designers are still learning the nuances of the beasts. And while the Artemis accident occurred in unexceptional conditions - 18-20 knots of wind and flat seas - July and August in San Francisco will see bigger breezes.

Paul Cayard, Artemis chief and tactician, recently predicted a repeat of Oracle's capsize.

"It would be a miracle if we get through the summer without it happening to somebody [else]," he said. "We're going to start pushing harder, we are going to race and those type of boats - catamarans - tip over."

For safety, sailors wear helmets, life vests and body armour and carry knives to cut themselves free from fallen rigging. They also receive regular training in underwater survival and wear small oxygen bottles in case of being trapped. Divers and doctors follow in support boats.

It is not clear yet what caused Artemis to flip and break up or what exactly happened to Simpson.

The format

The event is scheduled to begin with the Louis Vuitton Cup, the head-to-head challengers' series from 4 July-30 August. The winner of this will go on to race holders Oracle for the America's Cup, a best-of-17 race series from 7-21 September.

Schedule

Oracle Racing
  • 4 July-4 Aug: Louis Vuitton Cup round robin
  • 6-14 August: Louis Vuitton Cup semi-finals
  • 17-30 August: LV Cup best-of-13 final
  • 7-21 September: America's Cup best-of-17 final v Oracle

Originally, Coutts envisaged 14 challengers, but only three - Sweden's Artemis, Emirates Team New Zealand and Italy's Luna Rossa - plus Oracle have made it this far. Most dropped out because of soaring costs, thought to be about $100m per campaign. Others disagreed with the concept.

British businessman Sir Keith Mills withdrew his Team Origin when he first saw the plans for the AC72s, forcing Simpson, Iain Percy and Ben Ainslie to pursue their America's Cup ambitions with overseas outfits. Percy, Simpson's Olympic partner, is sailing team boss with Artemis, while four-time Olympic champion Ainslie is racing for Oracle before launching his own team BAR for the next Cup.

"Based on the specs I saw in 2010, I was very concerned and I expressed my concerns," said Mills. "But the Americans were determined to go ahead with this type of sailing, which I fundamentally disagreed with."

Organisers boast the 34th America's Cup will be the most accessible to on-shore spectators in the event's history. The compact course will be close to the shore, inside the Golden Gate Bridge, and between Alcatraz Island and the waterfront district near Fisherman's Wharf.

The TV coverage will be similarly revolutionary, with sailors wearing microphones, onboard cameras and real-time on-screen graphics to provide an instant and understandable view of the boats' positions on the racetrack.

The future

With the investigations still under way, the future is unclear.

Options range from safety tweaks, to delaying the start of the Louis Vuitton Cup, to the nuclear option of cancelling the whole thing. Luna Rossa boss Patrizio Bertelli is reportedly conferring with his team over whether to continue their campaign.

Notable moments in Cup history

  • 1851: US yacht America wins the inaugural event off the Isle of Wight, England
  • 1983: Australia II, with a controversial winged keel, is first non-US boat to win since 1870
  • 1987: Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes wins back Cup for United States in Fremantle
  • 1995: Team New Zealand win for the first time and defend at home in 2000
  • 2003: Switzerland's Alinghi, with many Kiwi sailors, beats Team New Zealand in NZ
  • 2007: Alinghi defends the Cup in Valencia
  • 2010: US team Oracle wins a controversial edition with a wing-sailed trimaran
  • 2013: British Olympian Andrew Simpson dies in training in San Francisco

Scrapping the 2013 Cup would cause a huge knock-on effect in terms of cost, jobs, logistics and the reputations of Ellison and Coutts, but America's Cup Event Authority chief executive Stephen Barclay admits nothing is out of the question.

"Nothing is off the table," he said. "We need to know what happened.

"After a tragedy like this, there will be a full and careful evaluation and we will be ready to act on any of the lessons learned."

If the Cup does go ahead, Artemis has a second AC72 which could be in action next month. Oracle also has a back-up boat, but Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa do not.

The winners of the America's Cup get to choose the boats, format and venue for the next event, and it seems likely the AC72 will be scrapped.

On the other hand, another America's Cup organising official said the AC72 represents progress in sailing.

"It's what these guys want to do," said regatta director Iain Murray. "They want to take sailing to the next level and these boats are part of that platform."