Last Thursday, Andrew Simpson, a 36-year-old Olympic gold medalist from England, was killed during America's Cup training when Artemis Racing's boat capsized in the waters of San Francisco Bay. Although at least eight support boats equipped with divers converged on the wreck, it took nearly 10 minutes to find Simpson, who was trapped beneath the hulls. Though something of a freak accident, Simpson's death has shaken event organizers, team owners and participants.
The 34th edition of the America's Cup was meant to introduce a fresh, more exciting brand of racing to the world—sailing for the 21st century. The new era began after billionaire Larry Ellison and his Oracle Team USA recaptured the Cup in 2010. As was his right as Cup holder, Ellison pursued changes that would increase the event's TV appeal.
Working with top engineers and designers, Ellison settled on 72-foot catamarans with 131-foot-tall wing sails, which could propel the boats to 40 knots, and chose to conduct the races far closer to shore. Teams later developed underwater hydrofoils that allow the hulls to lift clear of the water, so that the boats appear to fly on four carbon fiber fins. Suddenly the America's Cup was about high-tech vessels traveling at near highway speeds across a moving and uneven surface.
The boats were so new and so powerful that teams struggled to figure out what they could and could not do. After his team capsized during a test last October, Oracle tactician Tom Slingsby said, "Every day we go out, we're pushing [the boat] more and more, and, yeah, we found our limit today."
For the most part, sailors embraced the challenge of the new vessels while accepting the risks. "They want to take sailing to the next level," said Iain Murray, the America's Cup regatta director. But last week's tragedy (Simpson left behind a wife, Leah, and two sons younger than four) set a steep price for reaching those heights.
Already some are having second thoughts. Patrizio Bertelli, head of the Luna Rossa organization, told his team they were free to walk away individually or to shut down the operation. "If they told me to stop, that wouldn't be a problem," Bertelli told the Italian magazine Yacht Capital.
As of Monday no one had backed out of the competition, in part because the reason for the accident remained unclear. Was it the nature of the boats overall, or a particular problem with one boat? Was it tactical error? No one knows, although Artemis's launch last fall was delayed when a structural fault was detected.
Organizers have assigned Murray to conduct an investigation (because a death was involved, police and the U.S. Coast Guard are also investigating), and they have taken no option off the table, from changes to the boats to course changes, to canceling the event, which is scheduled to start on July 4, with three teams facing off in the Louis Vuitton Cup for the right to meet Oracle in September.
Stephen Barclay, the event's CEO, has expressed optimism that the races will continue as scheduled. If they do, everyone will take to the water with eyes wide open. As Bertelli put it about the 162-year-old event, "We've gone from a romantic America's Cup to an extreme one."