Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Dana Johannsen: Tight engineering timelines fatal flaw for speedy cats

The Artemis Racing AC72 catamaran. Photo / AP
The Artemis Racing AC72 catamaran. Photo / AP

It was a tragedy that apparently America's Cup authorities did not see coming.

Artemis' catastrophic training accident which led to the death of British sailor Andrew Simpson was "not on the radar for any of us", according to regatta director Iain Murray - the man tasked with leading a review into the incident.

What caused the Artemis boat to flip while performing a bear-away manoeuvre may remain unknown for the moment - although early indications suggest a major structural failing - but the path they travelled to get to this point is quite apparent to most.

From the outset, the giant, hi-tech catamarans were a massive over-reach in time, cost, and complexity for the competitors - Sir Russell Coutts admitted as much in an interview with the Herald last year.

The AC72 is a workable class, albeit horrifically expensive, if the design is well thought-out, the construction sound and it is sailed under sensible conditions.

The boats may be on-the-edge, but they are appropriate for high-level competition. The fatal flaw in the planning of Coutts and his cohorts was not in the design concept, but the timing of the regatta, which left teams with little chance to get their heads around the new class.

The timelines for the design and engineering of these boats were extremely compressed, leaving the sailors with limited opportunity to get to grips with the complexities of sailing the unforgiving speed machines - some of which were defective in their construction.

While America's Cup management may claim the death was not on their radar, their reviews are unlikely to unearth any new revelations other than the myriad problems that have been discussed.

In any case, with the competitors having invested upwards of half a billion dollars in the event, America's Cup organisers have declared the show must go on. While economics shouldn't be the only factor at play, it is clear too many dollars have flowed under the bridge for the teams and organisers to back out now.

It is now up to a panel to determine how that show can go on without further tragedy - and that will mean making revisions that aren't going to be popular with everyone.

Organisers have set a wide wind range for TV scheduling purposes to ensure there aren't the lengthy delays to the racing programme that have blighted previous Cup regattas. But with no live TV coverage until the elimination rounds of the Louis Vuitton Cup, organisers now have a bit more wriggle room. Where the problem lies is that the teams have built their boats to agreed parameters, optimising them to the expected wind conditions in San Francisco in July-September. Altering the wind limit at this late stage would prove extremely unpopular and potentially very difficult under the rules.

If the races have to be held in a wide wind range, then the courses need to be reconfigured for greater safety, which would mean compromising Coutts and his boss Larry Ellison's vision of the event being a televisual spectacular. Giant catamarans performing high-speed manoeuvres on a short race track may make for great telly, but it is also where the sailors are most at risk.

But it will be up to the eventual winners of the Cup to make the revision we are all waiting for - abandoning the AC72 for good.

- NZ Herald

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Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Dana has more than a decade's experience in sports journalism, joining the Herald in 2007 following stints with TVNZ and RadioSport. Over that time Dana has covered several major events including the 2011 Netball World Cup in Singapore, 2011 Rugby World Cup, 2012-13 Volvo Ocean Race, and the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco. A multi-award winning journalist, Dana was named New Zealand Sports Journalist of the Year in 2012 after scooping both the news and feature categories at the TP McLean Awards. The previous year she picked up the prize for best news break. She was also an inaugural recipient of the Sir John Wells scholarship at the 2009 NZSJA awards. Dana also writes a weekly sports column for the NZ Herald.

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