Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Tragedy casts spotlight on event's future

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Artemis team chairman Torbjorn Tornqvist. Photo / Supplied
Artemis team chairman Torbjorn Tornqvist. Photo / Supplied

Artemis could yet make it to the start line of the 34th America's Cup in July even as the shock of Andrew Simpson's death continues to reverberate throughout the sailing fraternity.

There are two main reasons for that. First, the boat damaged in the capsize is not the boat Artemis are due to race in the Louis Vuitton.

Second, while the official inquiry will determine the cause of the accident, first indications are it appears to have been caused by a structural failure of the prototype boat rather than wind or sea conditions or any dangers inherent in the San Francisco venue.

Artemis team chairman Torbjorn Tornqvist is said to be on his way to San Francisco for a team meeting that may decide Artemis' future.

That may help answer the other big question (the first being: what happened?) - what happens next?

It's not the first time death has punctured the sails of world yachting. In 1999, Spanish sailor Martin Wizner died in a training accident on the prototype yacht prepared by the Spanish challenge for the 2000 America's Cup in Auckland.

That happened in Majorca - a year ahead of the event - and it is not downplaying the tragedy of either death to point out that the Spanish still competed in Auckland in 2000.

Nor are yachts close to the edge and prone to breakages and capsizes new. Australia famously broke in two and sank in America's Cup 1995 and New Zealand's over-designed yacht in 2003, while it never threatened lives, was prone to race-losing breakages and once took on so much water, it snapped NZL 82's boom.

The Volvo Ocean race has cost five lives, the last in 2006. The next version of that race - in 2014 and 2015 - will feature shorter, safer boats after the last race (with longer, lighter, faster yachts) produced a lot of gear and boat failures.

So safety is now the elephant in the America's Cup trophy room. The Louis Vuitton regatta is set to start in early July. How organisers prevent such a tragedy from recurring while holding their course in the race for the world's oldest and grandest sporting trophy is not yet known.

There now seem three broad options:

• Call off the regatta - unlikely, given the commitments that have been made.

• Delay the regatta until some safety changes can be made - technically possible, though expense still rears its head and no one will want to hold up further an event that has already been stalled for the last six years.

• Drop the allowable wind limits for racing - possible, although wind conditions do not seem to be at fault.

Artemis and Oracle, who were also out sailing, had turned for home, according to early reports, because the wind was getting up. It had been moderate - about 15-20 knots - and Artemis' yacht was it's non-foiling version.

Early indications are that the hull problems which have troubled Artemis' design occurred again, with structural failure of the beams or girders meaning the two hulls simply started sailing in different directions, splitting the yacht and then cartwheeling it, apparently trapping Simpson under the webbing.

"It's early days and everyone will wait to hear what the inquiry discovers but what I am hearing suggests that this may not be anything to do with the sea or wind or venue," said Peter Lester, the former America's Cup sailor and coach, double New Zealand yachtsman of the year and respected yachting commentator.

"But it looks to be a different picture to what happened to Oracle. The outcome is horrendous - Andrew Simpson has lost his life and we all feel for his wife and family. But it must be said: All sport on the edge, all life on the edge, carries risks when you push the boundaries hard."

The big cats can do upwards of 40 knots and, when flying a hull, are 40 feet or more off the water surface. Sailors have long been aware of the danger and Team NZ crew are issued with helmets, body armour, knives for cutting themselves free and a small air bottle if they are trapped and submerged.

So, if there are no endemic design faults troubling the syndicates - Oracle, Emirates Team NZ, Luna Rossa and, perhaps, Artemis - it seems most likely that the America's Cup regattas will continue, with AC72s in their current form.

No one in any of the teams is talking - out of respect for Simpson and Artemis - but there will be a great deal of thinking and talking behind the scenes.

An agreement on reducing allowable wind conditions for racing could be one PR solution but neither Luna Rossa nor Team NZ may be happy with that.

Just last week, Team NZ chief Grant Dalton talked about how Oracle, as defenders, had the comparative luxury of setting up their boat for the lighter airs expected in San Francisco in September, the time of the Cup regatta between the winner of the Louis Vuitton and the holder.

Team NZ and Luna Rossa, however, had to configure their boats to take in the breezier conditions of July-August in the challenger series. Cutting wind speed parameters now would seem to benefit Oracle more but unanimous approval is needed to make changes.

However, it would be a brave team that spoke out against such a move with the spectre of a fatal accident in the background.

A united front following the Simpson tragedy and agreement on how to proceed seems certain. But how any adjustments following that tragedy affect the remaining teams - and whether anyone gains an advantage - remains to be seen.

- Herald on Sunday

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