The death of Olympic gold medalist Andrew Simpson, who was trapped underwater after the Artemis Racing team’s 72-foot high-tech catamaran capsized and broke apart in a training run Thursday, was precisely the type of incident that critics of billionaire Larry Ellison’s approach to the America’s Cup have feared.
The new boats were selected by Ellison after his Oracle team won the Cup in 2010. Under the race rules, the winners decide where and how the next competition is held.
Ellison, an enthusiastic proponent of high-tech advances in sailing, picked specifications for the boats that led to ultra-lightweight, double-hulled vessels that can cruise at close to 50 mph.
“When you push the technology beyond the point of safety, I’m not sure that’s good for any sport,” said Scott MacLeod, a managing director at the sports marketing firm WSM Communications who has worked closely with America’s Cup teams and sponsors for two decades.
The accident could conceivably lead to the outright cancellation of the races, or a last-minute switch to a different type of boat. The head of the America’s Cup Event Authority, Stephen Barclay, told a Friday news conference that an investigation was underway and that “nothing is off the table.”
The risks associated with the new boats first became clear last fall, when an Oracle boat flipped and was swept under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to sea. No one was hurt in that accident, but the boat required millions of dollars and months to repair.
“To be successful, these boats have to be built fairly close to a point where they might fail,” said Chuck Hawley, who has crossed the Atlantic in a catamaran and is now chairman of safety at US Sailing, a governing body that
promotes the sport.
America’s Cup officials said it was too early to say whether the boat designs are flawed.
But Hawley and other observers said that based on pictures they had seen, it appeared the boat had a structural failure that caused it to capsize, rather than the other way around.
“The question now is whether the participants think the death was a fluke or whether they think the boats and racing is inherently so dangerous that someone else could die,” said Richard Spindler, publisher of Latitude 38, a Bay Area sailing magazine, in an email.
“The America’s Cup is not supposed to be a life-and-death competition.”