Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Yachting: Quick cats bring high risk for Cup sailors (+ graphic)

Skipper Dean Barker at the helm. Photo / Natalie Slade
Skipper Dean Barker at the helm. Photo / Natalie Slade

It's not just the boats that have been given an extreme makeover in the new era of the America's Cup. You may have noticed the sailors too are also sporting a very different look these days.

Now decked out in helmets, body armour and life vests, the Team New Zealand crew have been said to look more like astronauts than sailors.

Previously, all they really had to worry about was protecting themselves from the sun, and maybe a bit of rope burn. If it was a dry day, they could comfortably get away with wearing a hat, shorts and T-shirt - some of the crew were even known to wear jandals on board during a training day.

But with the event shifting to super-powered wingsail catamarans capable of reaching speeds in excess of 45 knots (83km/h), the emphasis on safety and risk management on board has increased dramatically.

As well as all the protective gear, the crew also carry oxygen bottles and knives should things go horribly wrong and they are trapped underwater and need to cut themselves free of ropes or netting.

Rescue diver Calvin Hicks is on the team's chase boat every day the AC72 is out on the water, along with a St John Ambulance advanced paramedic, who volunteer their time.

It is fair to say the realities of the new high-danger environment have come as a shock to all the crew at some point.

"The thing that really put the shits up me was the rescue guys came in with St Johns one day and we had a meeting about what would happen in the worst-case scenario and how everything would play out. One of the guys in the chase boat was given the job of recovering bodies - that was when it really hit home," said Team New Zealand grinder Chris McAsey.

He has played a big role in sourcing and developing the team's safety gear. His challenge has been trying to strike the right balance between having adequate protectionand ensuring the team can still perform their roles in an athletic environment.

"We've got used to the gear now, initially it did feel a bit cumbersome. It was a big change going from just wearing shorts, T-shirt and shoes, where you try and keep any weight off you that you could, to wearing all this stuff," said McAsey.

"But you just know that if the time came and you needed any of this stuff, you'd be grateful for it."

Oracle's capsize in San Francisco Bay last October brought home to everyone just how dangerous the giant catamarans can be. While the Cup defenders suffered severe damage to their boat when it pitch-poled during a training run, the crew were extremely lucky to escape without any serious injuries.

Team NZ already had a comprehensive safety plan in place before they even started sailing their AC72, but the Oracle capsize served as a healthy reminder for the team of why so much time is spent on risk management plans. As a result of the accident, McAsey said they beefed up their safety training.

During some downtime late last year the team were also put through a number of training exercises designed to simulate what the crew would faced if they ever had a catastrophic failure.

In one exercise at the pool, they jumped off a 10m platform so they could experience what it was like falling from a height into water.

Before they did so, a piece of rope was tied around one leg so when they were underwater one of the divers held on to them. The crew then had to find their oxygen bottles, take a breath from it, then take out their knives and simulate cutting the rope before the divers would let go.

"This stuff is all very well in theory, the oxygen bottle is pretty straightforward - you stick it in your mouth and breathe through it, but in an emergency situation it's not that easy," said McAsey.

It's not just catastrophic accidents that the sailors have to worry about. Just falling from the boat while it is travelling at 40 knots would be likely to render you unconscious.

McAsey said he had had a couple of close calls where he had nearly been "flicked off", while just this week Rob Waddell nearly ended up in the drink.

But while it is high-stress stuff, McAsey still gets an "intense buzz" when the AC72 is up on foils flying downwind.

- NZ Herald

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