Yachting: Infamous crash still gives you that sinking feeling

By Paul Lewis

Australia One's sinking in San Diego in 1995 is still synonymous with Cup racing.
Australia One's sinking in San Diego in 1995 is still synonymous with Cup racing.

"That is the reality of living on the edge. That's what we do in the America's Cup - sail on the edge. It's a bit like Formula One. They're on the edge too. People have crashes, people get killed. It doesn't stop F1 and it doesn't stop the America's Cup either. If you are not on the edge, you are not competitive."

The speaker was John Bertrand, skipper of One Australia, the 1995 America's Cup challenger, which is still the only boat to lose a race by sinking when - in a seminal America's Cup moment - it broke up and sank off San Diego when racing Team New Zealand.

In San Francisco for a 1995 reunion and Australia II's victory in 1983, Bertrand's comments have obvious relevance today. The flying AC72s had their leashes shortened when the wind limits were dropped by 10 knots in the name of safety following the fatal capsize of Artemis, killing crew member Andrew Simpson, in May.

In the midst of the One Australia reminisces came another, more poignant, reminder of the relevance of that sinking to today.

Iain Murray was on board that day and is now the regatta director of the 34th America's Cup. He was also the man at the forefront of the safety recommendations made after the Simpson death, which created controversy. Some felt they were disadvantaging some competitors and rewarding others. Now some feel too much racing has been lost to winds the AC72 can handle.

"For a very short period of time, we didn't know how many people were safe," said Murray. "When you go through a process like this [Simpson's death and the safety measures], you go back to those moments - they never leave you.

"You hope that a little bit of this from a long while ago will stand you in good stead as you go forward."

His old shipmate Bertrand didn't quite agree: "I think in hindsight, they [the wind limits] are a bit too conservative. These things can sail in 28 knots, in my opinion.

"But you can see how the responsibility and liability issues might affect things and maybe not enough people fully appreciate how these things are unstable surface effect machines.

"The whole sailing world has changed - they are getting huge lift off the water and these boats require more teamwork than any other America's Cup.

"After all, you are sailing them on a toothpick [a reference to the boats racing on hydrofoils] and a rudder."

If Murray and Bertrand have a slight difference of opinion on the wind limits, they are united in their memory of that fateful day on One Australia. Peter Montgomery's TV commentary was unforgettable, as were the pictures of the big yacht cracking up the middle and sinking within two minutes. The film went on the internet and became, at that stage, the most watched event other than the moon landing.

It led to one of the most famous quotes in Cup history.

Rod Davis (now the coach of Emirates Team NZ) was helming the boat that day and almost casually remarked to the burly Murray: "Big fella, are we going to sink?" The equally unflappable Murray said: "Yes. We are going to sink."

He was right. It was all over in two minutes, the tonnes of lead ballast in the hulls dragging the boat to the bottom of the Pacific.

No one died but the favourite to have done so was crewman Don McCracken who, in spite of being a Volvo round-the-world yachtsman, couldn't swim. "Dog paddle was about his lot," said Murray.

McCracken was one of the last off the yacht, thrown off the bow by the force of the sinking - just as well, as he could well have been sucked under in the vortex.

New Zealand's Murray Jones, now with Oracle Team USA and a four-time Cup winner, was on NZL32 and watched in horror as the yacht cracked and sank in front of them.

"The whole [NZ] boat went quiet. No one said a word," said Jones. "We just hoped no one was suffering - we were all concerned someone was hurt."

"One of the things that has stayed with me was the comradeship," said Bertrand. "The Kiwi chase boat picked some of our guys up. They were horrified at what had happened. We are blood brothers out of the water, regardless of the fact that we are mortal enemies on it. "

In the end, it came back to safety. Murray - then a competitor - said the organisers had asked the teams whether they wanted to sail: "I guess our egos got ahead of our brains a bit. Of course we wanted to race - but we got a bit ahead of ourselves."

That day, not only did One Australia sink, other boats were damaged on a day Jones said they should not have raced. The Australians stayed in the regatta, re-building their pace boat. They beat all other challengers except New Zealand, who won the Louis Vuitton Cup and went on to take the America's Cup - for the first time - off Dennis Conner in Stars & Stripes.

- Herald on Sunday

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