The tragic news of Andrew Simpson’s death has shaken the America's Cup community that had taken big steps to prepare for the worst
The fear of capsizing an AC72 was one that all the current America’s Cup contenders took very seriously. Even before Oracle Racing’s capsize in San Francisco back in October 2012 teams had spent a considerable amount of time discussing how to deal with the worst and providing crews with equipment and training to deal with such an incident, in particular getting out from under an inverted boat.
Dressed in wet suits, crash helmets and body armour, each crewman has a knife and a personal oxygen bottle in order to provide a limited supply of additional air.
Jumping off a 10m high platform into a pool, fully dressed while a diver in the pool held them down with a tether around their ankle, crews practice cutting themselves free underwater. Each crewmember has a personal oxygen bottle that they can take gulps of air from providing them with an extra minute or so underwater. Such extreme training is now part of the new self imposed safety training for this America’s Cup. Learning to hold your breath for longer is another, as is how to deal with a seriously injured crew member, or even resuscitate them in the water.
During the recent AC World Series event in Naples I spoke to a number of the teams about their preparations for the Louis Vuitton and America’s Cups this year.
“We go into the swimming pool every week for two hours, first to improve our swimming, but also to practice holding our breath under water,” said Luna Rossa’s skipper Max Sirena. “One of our grinders is also a lifesaver and so we have a number of practice drills that involve diving down, undoing shackles and cutting lines.”
Even when running normally, the powerful new cats themselves are particularly demanding to sail and have pushed crews hard.
“The learning curve is amazingly steep, in fact it’s never been this steep before an America’s Cup,” continued Sirena. “With time so tight we have been spending 6-8 hours a day afloat. The boats are so stressful to sail in a breeze, both physically and mentally that it is hard to sail for more than five days a week. In fact this is too much, four is the max really.
His comments were typical of those in other teams who also expressed concerns as to the technical complexity of the boats. While the reasons for Artemis‘ capsize are as yet unknown, many of the crews that I spoke to pointed out how much the new AC72s rely on their hydraulic systems to control virtually everything bar the sheets onboard.
“The fitness levels that we were at on the old Cup monohulls simply doesn’t compare to where we are now,” explained Emirates Team New Zealand grinder Winston Macfarlane. “There’s a huge amount of tweaking and trimming that goes on aboard these boats and with just about everything driven by the hydraulics, there’s a constant demand on the grinders. Under the rules you can’t have stored power so the crew are grinding all the time to ensure that power is available when someone wants to switch in and adjust something.”
Driving sheets and halyards places normal demands on the hydraulic winch package, but on the AC72s, dagger boards are hoisted up and down, canted and also trimmed fore and aft to change the angle of attack of the hydrofoils thus changing the amount of vertical lift. All are controlled by hydraulics, there is barely a block and tackle in sight.
With the boats so reliant on such complex systems, a mechanical breakdown is another major concern for teams.
“Hydraulic problems will be pretty terminal and will risk major damage to the boat as it could easily become unsailable,” Emirates Team New Zealand’s Chief Operating Officer Kevin Shoebridge. told me. “Reliability is going to be one of the biggest keys and yet no one really knows how things will stand up when the real racing pressure comes on.”
His skipper Dean Barker was also well aware of the risks.
“July and August are two difficult months to survive,” he said, speaking three weeks ago about the Challenger selection trials. “These are two of the windiest months in San Francisco and it will be a challenge just to keep things together. It would be good if we could get all the Challengers through the breezy conditions of the Round Robin phase and have them to race against each other in the build up to the Cup. But there is a risk that there won’t be boats to race against.”
Shortly afterwards I spoke to Artemis’ sailing team director Iain Percy who felt much the same, reflecting a commonly held concern.
“I do worry that we will see at least another capsize,” he said.
As yet it is not known what caused Artemis’ accident, nor indeed the nature of the tragic events that followed. But that the fatal accident happened during training will add to the concerns within teams and mean that many questions will doubtless be asked about both the new generation of boats and the event itself.