The next America’s Cup, due to be raced in San Francisco in September, looks like it will have just as much drama on and off the water as the previous Cup’s.
The America’s Cup has become the on water equivalent of F1 motor racing; at the leading edge of technology, speed way beyond anything a normal yacht or car could manage, outrageously expensive, and dangerous.
The latter was never really the case for yachting but in May, while training on the famous San Francisco Bay, the America’s Cup had its first fatality.
The latest America’s Cup yachts are as far removed from the original Cup contenders as F1 cars are from the original Grand Prix cars. The AC72’ is a truly awesome piece of technology.
The catamarans are 72 ft on the water line and nearly 50’ wide and they are a ‘flying carpet’, that is they fly above the water. In 20knts of breeze they reach over 40 knts (80+kms an hour). They carry foil or wing sails fixed on a 130ft mast.
The wings create lift in exactly the same way as an aeroplane wing but it’s most spectacular trick is to use hydrofoils to lift the hull of the boat clean out of the water. The two hydrofoils are “L” shaped and, operated using hydraulics, they are lowered down-wind under each hull and canted to form two ‘Vs’. Once they are in place the hull lifts clear and the boat takes off.
All this technology has caused tremendous enthusiasm in some quarters and Larry Ellison, the owner of Oracle, the Cup defender, and reputedly one of the richest men in America, proclaimed these technical advances the only way to make sailing an exciting spectator sport capable of capturing the world’s sports fans.
There were many in the sailing fraternity who shook their heads. Maybe they were just old fashioned, left behind by technology. But then on May 9th Artemis, the Swedish boat, was training in the Bay and doing up around 40 knts when it appears a hull buried its nose in a wave and in seconds the entire boat had flipped. 72ft of hull and 130ft of mast had pitch poled end over end. One can only imagine at what velocity the crew, harnessed on or not, went hurtling out of the boat.
One crew member, Englishman Andrew “Bart” Simpson, Olympic gold medallist, was drowned, trapped under the boat in a mess of rigging. All the safety gear, the crash helmets, padding or body armour, oxygen cylinders, inflatable gear and harnesses could not save him.
As could be expected all hell broke loose amongst a chorus of “I told you so’s”. An enquiry was immediately instituted headed by Aussie Ian Murray and to date it appears the event will go ahead as scheduled.
Oracle will be the Cup defender and the Challenger will come from the winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup in August, fought out between Emirates Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa Challenge, and Artemis, if she recovers from the tragedy.
The rules however have been significantly tightened. There will be a structural review, better personal safety and support equipment, and better race management.
Most important of all, the wind limit for America’s Cup races will be reduced from 33 knots to 23, calculated to make life a lot less dangerous but the speed through, or over, the water just as quick.
One thing’s for certain, there will be a lot more controversy before the starting gun fires for the challenge rounds in August, and then some spectacular but hopefully not fatal racing.