Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Yachting: Financial and human cost of big cat mean it won't return

Questions were raised over the safety of the AC72 class after Cup defenders Oracle capsized six months earlier. Photo / AP
Questions were raised over the safety of the AC72 class after Cup defenders Oracle capsized six months earlier. Photo / AP

In the wilds of Milford Sound, where cellphone reception can be sketchy, it didn't take long for the news to reach Grant Dalton.

The Team New Zealand boss was holidaying in the South Island with his family, taking some rare time out before heading to San Francisco where he would be overtaken by the madness of the team's final America's Cup preparations, when his phone started buzzing incessantly.

There had been a serious accident on San Francisco Bay. Artemis had capsized. One sailor was dead, another injured. The Swedish team's boat a write-off.

Dalton's first thoughts were with Artemis and the family, friends and colleagues of Andrew Simpson - the British double Olympic medallist who drowned in the training accident. His second thoughts were of the major implications the "absolutely horrifying tragedy" would have on the event, which had already been marred by so many set-backs.

"I knew at that moment it would mean big changes," he said.

Before Simpson was laid to rest a week and a half ago, a review committee investigating the accident had already proposed a series of sweeping safety recommendations for this year's event.

These 37 points ranged from mandatory safety gear for sailors - including body armour, quick release buoyancy aids and high-visibility helmets - to alterations to the boats.

The most contentious recommendation was always going to be the wind limits, which the review committee has proposed to be reduced to a maximum of 23 knots - down from 33. Having made certain trade-offs with the design of their boat in order to ensure its reliability in the original wind range set down in the Protocol, Emirates Team New Zealand viewed the reduction as a "shifting of the goal posts", but they have come to accept they are fighting a losing battle when the other side plays the safety card.

"We would have liked it to be higher, but we also want to get on with things," said Dalton.

What is of more concern for Dalton is that the teams may use the tragedy to gain advantage by recommending changes are made to the boats.

"It hasn't happened to this point, but it's still there - it sits there below the surface on certain issues," he said.

"We don't believe there is any need for any class rule change. All changes or safety recommendations can be implemented without any changes to the class rule boat."

It was always going to take widespread changes to satisfy the public and authorities that the event should go ahead.

In the emotion-charged days after the accident there were questions of whether the regatta should be canned, with some, including America's Cup veteran Peter Lester, asserting the high-powered but extremely skittish AC72 catamarans were simply too dangerous for racing.

Capable of reaching speeds up to 45 knots, the spectacular wing-sailed catamarans were supposed to bring the America's Cup from the 19th century into the 21st. They were controversial from the start.

Criticism over the new class centred around the astronomical design and engineering costs involved given the complexity of the wing-sail technology, with just three challengers being able to come up with the resources to mount a campaign. But in the wake of Simpson's death, Oracle chief executive Sir Russell Coutts and his billionaire master Larry Ellison were fending off allegations of turning the event into a "slaughtering game", as Patrizio Bertelli, the head of Italian syndicate Luna Rossa, put it.

There had already been questions raised over the safety of the AC72 class after Cup defenders Oracle capsized on San Francisco Bay six months earlier, pitching end over end. Incredibly no sailors were seriously injured, but the accident proved a wake-up call for all the competitors, who began to ramp up their safety measures and practise as best they could for the worst case scenario. For many fans the danger added another exciting element to this new, extreme version of sailing. Others weren't so convinced.

"I ask myself where are we taking the most sought-after prize in our sport when to go racing the crews of these cats, all very young people, have to don crash helmets and body armour, and be equipped with personal oxygen supply in a bid to ensure survival?", commentator Lester wrote back in April.

Dalton said he has never had any concerns over the safety of the boat. Team New Zealand have tested their AC72 in extreme conditions - they were out on the water the same day a tornado ripped through Auckland in December last year - and since their arrival in San Francisco last month have been happily whizzing about in winds well above the revised limits.

"The class itself is not unsafe, decisions that have been made in the design process make the boats unsafe," he said.

The San Francisco Police department and various other authorities are still investigating the accident and how Simpson came to drown under the tangle of wreckage, but the early evidence seems to support Dalton's belief.

Preliminary reports suggest the Artemis didn't capsize because the sailors were pushing too hard or made an error, as was the case with Oracle. The problem was with the boat itself, either faulty engineering or faulty construction. The boat broke apart under sail, folded, then flipped. The boat has had a history of breakages since it was launched in October last year. It had been in and out of the shed numerous times in an attempt to correct those problems, and only recently underwent modifications after practise racing with Oracle revealed their non-foiling boat was well off the pace.

Wired magazine reports that last month, however, the forward beam gave way during a practise run. The two hulls, no longer connected, began sailing in slightly different directions. This caused one hull to snap just forward of the aft beam, and the mast, held up by high-tension rigging connected to the front of the hulls, simply fell over. The boat began to cartwheel, trapping Simpson underneath and drowning him.

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.

"I'm not surprised someone busted in half, because you can get it so wrong with a catamaran - it's like assembling a treehouse, whereas a monohull is like a big sausage," said Dalton.

"Artemis showed a team that doesn't quite get its numbers right can have a catastrophic and tragic outcome."

You have to have some sympathy for what Ellison and Coutts were trying to achieve. They recognised the event had become stale and needed a radical overhaul if it was to appeal to the modern sports fan. No one can criticise them for wanting to breathe life into the Cup, but they moved too far, too soon.

Now, even if Oracle successfully defend the Cup in September, Ellison's team has lost the bigger game. The whole point was to make an indelible mark on the world's most prestigious yachting event. Ellison promised his "Summer of Racing" would be the biggest, most spectacular sailing event ever, winning over a new generation of fans. The reality is, despite boldly predicting there would be up to 16 teams competing when he unveiled his grand plans for the event back in 2010, this year's challenger series will be the smallest in modern history.

Coutts has acknowledged for some time the AC72 was an overreach, no matter who wins there will almost certainly be major changes to the size and design of the boat with costs needing to be significantly reined in if they are to attract more competitors.

As Dalton quipped at charity dinner last month, the racing in the AC72s will be spectacular - "enjoy it, it'll be the last time you see them, it's too bloody expensive". And that was before there was any human toll.

Why we should still care about the America's Cup
Cup has ferried us from hope to pride and anger
Kiwis' Cup future rests on $120m punt

The New Zealand public have always found the eye-watering budgets involved with competing in the America's Cup distasteful, but how much will it cost the country if we are not a part of it? And we look at what the future of the event might hold if Team New Zealand wins the famous trophy in San Francisco.

- NZ Herald

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