A lot of people were surprised that the boats were on the water Sunday afternoon at the America's Cup trials. It was a rainy, blustery day in San Diego, with winds gusting to 22 knots. The seas off Point Loma were confused, if not especially high, topping out at about five feet. Several of the racing syndicates, wary of risking their multimillion-dollar International America's Cup Class yachts, which are as fast and fragile as thoroughbreds, had radioed the race committee to recommend postponement. Team New Zealand had called. So had France3 and Nippon Challenge. And so had oneAustralia, the syndicate headed by John Bertrand, a native of Melbourne who in 1983 became the only non-American to skipper an America's Cup winner.
Bertrand, whose 75-foot, $3 million boat had been launched only three weeks earlier, checked in, along with two other syndicates, barely a half hour before the scheduled start of the day's racing and told the race committee he thought the seas were unsafe. But race director Pat Healy, noting that the winds were forecast to gust no higher than 18 knots and were then blowing at only 12 to 14 knots, rejected all appeals. Before the regatta, the challenger syndicates had recommended that no race be started if the winds were 20 knots or more, and they were well below that limit as the 1 p.m. race start approached. Healy declared that Day 4 of Round 4 of the challenger selection series would go ahead as scheduled.
The featured race pitted the top two challenger boats, Team New Zealand's Black Magic 2 and oneAustralia 95. The so-called black beast of New Zealand was undefeated on the water, but one of its 24 victories had been reversed under protest. Bertrand's new, light-green oneAustralia 95, having been launched at the start of Round 3, was 7-1 and considered a potential America's Cup winner. Its lone loss was to Black Magic 2 in a match in which the boats were never more than six lengths apart. Both had already clinched a spot in the semifinal round.
On Sunday, Black Magic 2 started well and led by 15 seconds at the first mark. It was 21 seconds ahead when the boats made the second mark and turned back upwind. The breeze had picked up and was blowing some 20 knots. Halfway up that third leg, 45 minutes into the race, Bertrand, steering his boat through the heavy swells, heard a sound "almost like a cannon going off," he would say later. The honeycombed carbon-fiber hull of oneAustralia 95 had hit a wave or a series of waves, and cracked dead in the middle, a few yards behind the mast.
At first no one was sure what had happened. One member of the crew, packing away a sail below deck, assumed that the mast had snapped. "Then the boat appeared to fold like a sheet of cardboard," Bertrand would recall. "And there was this sickening sound of the boat breaking apart. There was a tearing sound, almost like a zipper. Rod Davis, the helmsman, said, 'I think we're going to sink.' He looked to Iain Murray, who was one of the designers of the boat, to confirm. Murray said, 'Yes, we're going to sink.' "
They were all very calm and collected. Bertrand told his crew to get their boots off. None of the sailors would have time to put on a life jacket before abandoning ship. Half the crew went to the bow, half to the stern, as the boat began buckling in the middle. The first men jumped into the roiling sea a minute and 10 seconds after the hull split and swam to one of several nearby support boats. A couple of crew members waited on the bow for another minute or so—almost too long. Once the hull submerged, the 16-ton lead bulb attached to the keel dragged oneAustralia 95 to the bottom with frightening velocity. Twenty-one seconds after the last man leaped off and swam for his life and less than 2� minutes from the moment the boat cracked, the top of oneAustralia 95's 110-foot mast disappeared beneath the slate-gray sea. The yacht eventually settled on the bottom, 500 feet below.
No one, fortunately, was injured. Black Magic 2 abandoned the race to help with the rescue effort, and within a few minutes all 17 men who had been on board oneAustralia 95 were safe.
Meanwhile, out on the other race courses, all sorts of debilitating—if less catastrophic—breakdowns were occurring. France3 was dismasted nearing the final mark against Rioja de Espa�a. On the defender's course, Team Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes broke a batten (one of the carbon-fiber strips that help give the sail its shape). Then it broke a batten car (the titanium joint that connects a batten to the mast). At the starting gun, the bottom part of its mainsail separated from the mast. Finally the Conner team limped along with only its headsail hoisted, a half hour behind American�'s Mighty Mary, which had cracked a forward ring frame (the lateral structural reinforcements to the hull) and broken its main halyard and would be forced to complete the race under headsail alone.
Bertrand refused to comment when asked if the race committee was wrong in allowing the boats to race in the questionable conditions. But he clearly was upset. France3 supported the committee's decision despite its earlier request for a postponement, "if the defenders race, the challengers must race," said French skipper Marc Pajot.
Harold Cudmore, the French technical adviser, who served in that capacity for America� in its successful 1992 Cup campaign, agreed: "The race committee did the right thing. But the question from an engineering point of view is, Did [oneAustralia] build the boat too light? You take a risk, you have to pay the penalties."