Made-for-TV America’s Cup Imperils Sailors Pursuing Speed
On the morning of May 9, Andrew Simpson reported to work at a former seaplane base in Alameda, California, for his job trying to win the America’s Cup.
The 36-year-old professional sailor arrived around 7:30 to join teammates in the gym for weight training. The shore crew was readying their ride, a red, 72-foot (21-meter) catamaran, before rolling it through sliding doors down to the water and hoisting its 131-foot wing-like sail with a construction crane. Big Red, as the Artemis Racing crew called the twin-hulled, carbon-fiber yacht, was almost ready for its final run.
Technological advances had redefined the Cup, an idiosyncratic sailing duel of the wealthy that originated in the 19th century. The boats were quicker and more dangerous than ever, 12-story catamarans capable of traveling at highway velocities. They were the vision of Larry Ellison, the chief executive officer of Oracle Corp. (ORCL) and the world’s eighth-richest man, who won the trophy in 2010, along with the right to host the regatta and hold sway over vessel design and rules.
Of that morning four months ago, Iain Percy remembers just flashes. He’d won gold and silver with Simpson on the British team at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. The partners, best mates for more than two decades, sat side-by-side on exercise bikes.
“He was pushing hard on the bike to lose some kilos,” says Percy, the Artemis skipper. Six-foot-one and 229 pounds (104 kilograms) at the Olympics the previous summer, Simpson was the ideal size for a Star-class boat but heavy for Big Red. He disliked the gym, which had occupied a couple of hours of many days for a decade or more as he developed the ropey limbs and iron core needed to haul lines and hang off boats.
The dozen or so of the world’s best sailors on Big Red would need every bit of their combined strength, talent and experience just to control the boat, which was capable of speeds exceeding 40 knots, or 46 miles an hour. Like all catamarans, it was prone to cartwheeling wrecks.
From the gym, the team moved on to a breakfast of cereal, yogurt and fruit, joking with each other in accents from a half-dozen countries. Then Percy led a briefing, outlining the day’s plan to meet up with Ellison’s defending champions, Oracle Team USA, for a sparring match up and down San Francisco Bay.
These practice races hadn’t gone well for Artemis, according to interviews with crew members, people on rival squads and Cup officials. While Big Red was a marvel of material and design technology, it was relatively slow. The champions, and the rest of Artemis’ competitors, had built boats that rose out of the water, balanced on blade-like hydrofoils, dramatically reducing drag and increasing speed. Big Red wasn’t built to do that.
It had other flaws -- among them a history of damage in the main beam joining the hulls -- and spent weeks in the shop, limiting practice hours.
The crew finished dressing and strapping on safety gear, including crash helmets, radios, air bottles and knives, in case an accident trapped someone under water.
They strode from the hangar, faces smeared with high-SPF sunscreen behind reflective sunglasses, and clambered aboard. Simpson struggled briefly to connect the control lines to the forward sail, called a jib. Percy went to help him.
The breeze was coming on, a cold wind blowing from the deep Pacific, building toward 18 knots. The men buckled their gear, took their positions and pointed the bows out toward the bay.
“Like these horrible days always do, it started very normally,” Percy says.
It would end with a crew member lost beneath the shattered wreckage of Big Red and the 162-year-old America’s Cup in turmoil. The crash spurred four investigations, dozens of new safety rules and renewed debate about whether technology had advanced faster than sailors’ ability to harness it safely.
After a fourth day of competition in the finals this week, Ellison’s U.S. team has won one race while New Zealand has taken six, putting control of the Cup in doubt. New Zealand can take the trophy with three more victories; Oracle needs 10 more because of a penalty related to rules violations in preliminary competition.
The Artemis wreck marked a critical point for the regatta, based on interviews with Cup officials, Artemis team ownership and management, professional sailors around the world and documents made available to Bloomberg. This was the second major wreck involving one of the new Cup boats, and it came after two years in which at least a dozen U.S. racers died in accidents.
For sailing, it was a moment akin to the 2001 death of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt during Nascar’s Daytona 500. That accident set off an unprecedented review of stock-car racing and triggered sweeping safety revisions. This accident shocked competitive sailors who embraced rule changes and new technology for bringing new excitement to the once-staid world of America’s Cup racing.
Safety versus speed is an old argument in sailing. In recent decades, material and design advances have transformed the sport, sending professional sailors across the water at unprecedented speeds. The record for sailing in a straight line has increased 30 percent since 2008 to 65.45 knots, while the round-the-world record fell to 45 days from 79 in 1993.
The America’s Cup this year was shaped by Ellison. Seeking the television audiences of auto racing’s Formula One or Nascar, his planners advertised the world’s best sailors racing the world’s fastest boats. Tiny on-board cameras flash up-close action to viewers, with vistas of San Francisco and the bay as backdrops. Spectators in waterfront grandstands are close enough to hear skippers barking commands. Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP is a media sponsor of the America’s Cup.
The rules raised the risks, calling for 72-foot catamarans driven by vertical carbon wings. Costing $8 million each, the boats are capable of exceeding the 45 mile-an-hour speed limit on the Golden Gate Bridge. Sailors, having long ago moved on from the belted khakis and golf shirts worn by Ted Turner on his 66-foot Courageous in 1977 off Newport, Rhode Island, don wet suits and life jackets.
Oracle flipped a boat during a practice last October. While nobody was injured, it highlighted the dangers in a competition that’s always held the threat of catastrophe. In 1995, Australia’s 75-foot monohull folded in half and sank in two minutes during a race off San Diego. At least two sailors had died pursuing the Cup, most recently Martin Wizner of a Spanish team, killed off Valencia in 1999 when a piece of equipment broke loose during training and struck him.
Most of the 15 or so competitors that organizers expected decided against the current contest, citing costs and safety, among them the British Team Origin. That freed Percy and Simpson to join Artemis, which is backed by a Swedish billionaire and the Royal Swedish Yacht Club. By that morning when Big Red sailed out of Alameda, Artemis was one of three remaining challengers, along with teams from New Zealand and Italy.
Light breezes riffled the waters off Sardinia under a cloudy sky in September 2007. Torbjorn Tornqvist was at the wheel of a 52-foot competition yacht, one race away from winning the world championship in the Transpac 52 class. Lean, tan and bald, he wore a gray jacket and a red baseball cap. Beside him on the stern stood tactician Russell Coutts, the most successful sailor in America’s Cup history. When the boat crossed the finish line two miles later, the trophy was Tornqvist’s.
“From that moment, he was hooked,” Coutts says. “He had the bug bad.”
Growing up in Stockholm piloting dinghies, Tornqvist left racing behind to become a businessman and didn’t rediscover the sea until he turned 50. Now 59, he made his fortune trading oil, co-founding Gunvor Group Ltd. His 44 percent stake gives him a net worth of $3.1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
After Coutts joined Ellison’s team and won the America’s Cup, Tornqvist began thinking he could mount a successful campaign for the trophy with Artemis Racing, named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, he says. He joined a long line of wealthy pursuers of the silver Cup first awarded Aug. 22, 1851. That’s when the schooner America, sponsored by the New York Yacht Club, defeated more than a dozen of Great Britain’s fastest yachts off the Isle of Wight.
Moguls including Harold Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan have since met periodically on the high seas with the best racing sailboats their fortunes could build to compete for possession of the three-foot trophy, known as the “Auld Mug.”
The Cup operates outside any sports league or governing body, with rules agreed upon by competitors every couple of years. There’s no purse -- and no limit on spending. Designing, building and racing a boat can cost upwards of $100 million. Engineering is so secret that in the past teams have been caught sending frogmen to sneak looks at rival boats.
Tornqvist knew his team faced long odds. It took Ellison three tries to win the trophy, which has changed countries just four times. “It is personal ambition obviously, I wouldn’t deny that,” Tornqvist says. “To be honest with you, I just couldn’t resist the challenge.”
Andrew Simpson’s path to his dream job started in childhood. Iain Percy met him at the under-15 U.K. national championships when they were both preteens. Scared to go out in the windy conditions one day, they built Lego boats instead, launching a friendship that continued as they advanced from junior regattas to the Olympic Games.
Simpson, nicknamed Bart after the television character, was a great athlete and consummate teammate, Percy says. He was a fan of Tottenham Hotspur, “Star Wars” and the Stereophonics, a Welsh rock band, according to a profile in Yachting World magazine. His sporting hero was cricketer Ian Botham. After Percy beat him in the trials for the 2000 Olympics, Simpson moved to Australia to help his friend train, and he was there when Percy won.
“I have a really vivid memory of sailing in and finding him with my mom and dad, all three of them in tears,” he says.
They sailed together in two-man Star boats for the 2008 Olympics. Rain pelted the waters off Qingdao, China, as Percy and Simpson outlasted Sweden in a duel for the gold.
In November 2010, Percy accepted a job with Artemis. Tornqvist and leaders of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club announced that the team would represent Sweden in the America’s Cup. Percy persuaded Simpson to join Artemis, talking him out of a plan to build furniture.
Cup teams offer the steadiest jobs in sailing, often with benefits and a housing allowance. Sailors in this year’s regatta make $10,000 to $70,000 a month, depending on their duties, estimates Gary Jobson, an NBC sailing analyst who won the Cup as tactician for Ted Turner. Jen McHugh, a spokeswoman for Artemis Racing, declined to discuss compensation.
With Artemis, Percy would be skipper, on-the-water leader of a crew stocked with Olympic medalists and world champions. Simpson would help Percy with weather and tactics. They would be led by CEO Paul Cayard, a veteran of six Cup campaigns and the winning team in the 1998 Whitbread Round-the-World Race.
Argentinian Juan Kouyoumdjian designed the Artemis boat. “Juan K,” as sailors call him, developed Ellison’s single-hull Cup boat in 2007 and the boats that won the past three editions of the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race.
Kouyoumdjian also designed Rambler 100, a record-setting, 100-foot yacht that lost its keel during the Fastnet Race off Ireland in 2011 and left former United Technologies Corp. Chairman George David drifting in the Celtic Sea for almost 3 hours. For all his success with monohulls, Kouyoumdjian had less experience with catamarans. The only multihull among 15 grand prix boats in the gallery on his website is Artemis.
His group’s design of the hydrofoils for Artemis put the team at a disadvantage from the beginning. The L-shaped, blade-like underwater wings work as airplane wings do in the air. When a boat is going fast enough, they create lift and raise the hulls out of the water, reducing drag and increasing speed.
Computer models suggested full foiling wouldn’t work, Tornqvist says. The boats sail five to seven legs back and forth along San Francisco’s northwestern waterfront, making turns defined by buoys. Staying up on foils might have required going extra distance to maintain speed, he says the modeling showed.
So Kouyoumdjian designed Big Red to use foils to lift the hulls only about three-quarters of the way out of the water, reducing friction. The three other teams committed to boats that would fly on foils completely above the surface.
“That was our big mistake, perhaps, believing too much in the modeling,” Tornqvist says.
Kouyoumdjian says his team was following rules set up to bar foiling until New Zealand figured out a way around them. He said various parts of the Artemis team struggled with communication and organization, which also slowed progress.
“These catamarans have nothing to do with anything that’s come before,” he said today in a telephone interview. “It’s not like there’s someone who knew how to do them already.”
It was just one of Big Red’s deficiencies. In May 2012, the wing-sail buckled in moderate winds during testing off Valencia, Spain. In October, the forward-most of the two beams joining the hulls broke as the team conducted structural tests in San Francisco Bay, towing the yacht behind a motorboat. Those setbacks kept the boat in the shop and the sailors on shore.
On Feb. 11, Big Red was back on the water, ready for its first scrimmage with Oracle. A high-pressure system hung off the coast, yielding blue skies and temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit (around 16 degrees Celsius). A 15-knot sea breeze came in from the Golden Gate.
It wasn’t much of a race. Oracle’s boat leapt onto its foils and sped along at 30 knots, legging out on Big Red, no matter what Artemis tried, as the teams criss-crossed the bay.
“We understood that we were completely wrong about the whole thing,” Tornqvist says. “They were faster downwind, which we knew, but the reality was they were also a bit faster upwind, and this came as a huge shock.”
He ordered a redesign of the team’s long-planned second boat so that it could fly on foils, too. (Oracle and New Zealand also built two boats.) “We were so much behind,” he says.
Still, the crew set out aboard Big Red May 9 feeling optimistic, according to interviews with squad members. A truck carrying the pieces of the new boat -- it would be called Big Blue -- had arrived that week, and the team was looking forward to sailing the faster craft.
Oracle prowled the waters, launched from the team’s base at San Francisco’s Pier 80, its crew dressed in black. Nathan Outteridge, Artemis’ 27-year-old Australian helmsman, guided the boat into position. Then they took off, the crew adjusting the sails by cranking winches hand over hand, as if pedaling a bike with their arms.
A flotilla of speedboats followed. Artemis CEO Cayard rode in one, Oracle CEO Coutts in another. Some carried rescue divers and emergency medical people. In others, engineers perched over open laptops and dashboard-mounted flat-screens, monitoring data from sensors as the yachts zigzagged up and down the bay.
At about 1 p.m., near Treasure Island, Outteridge saw Oracle turning back toward Berkeley. He began to follow. The transition from sailing upwind to downwind in a catamaran can be catastrophic. The sails can produce more power than the hulls can take, driving them downward and causing the boat to trip over the nose and flip end over end.
“You’ve got to do it at full speed,” says Outteridge, a gold medalist in high-speed skiffs at the 2012 Olympics. “The faster you’re going, the more lift you get and the safer it is.”
Artemis had been having difficulty with the move, known as bearing away, according to team members. The bow would nose into the water, sending spray arcing up over the hull. “We did a few earlier that day where we thought, ‘OK, we’re a bit on the edge here,’” Outteridge says.
The wind had strengthened to about 18 knots as he started the maneuver, according to a portion of an Artemis review of data from sensors on Big Red, eye witness accounts and video. As the boat turned, the bows dug into the water and the craft began to flip forward, pitchpoling as sailors call it.
The forward beam -- the one that broke before -- collapsed on the left side. The left hull broke away and the right hull and wing folded into each other.
“We buried the bow pretty hard,” Percy says. “I remember seeing the leeward hull snapping. I fell onto the wing and rolled then into the water.”
Outteridge knew he needed to hold on. He’d seen sailors falling from perilous heights when the Oracle boat flipped. He grabbed for some straps. As the nose submerged, his perch rose until he was several stories high.
“Then I was just trying to pick a place to land,” Outteridge says. He wound up about a quarter of the way up the wing just before the hull flipped over onto it. “I sort of held on and waited until I thought I was at an OK height to sort of jump and then I just rolled up the wing because, well, because the beam -- you could hear the noise of it breaking, so you knew in a moment the hull was going to land on the wing.”
He was uninjured after falling perhaps four stories before going into the water. Motorboats from both teams raced to the scene as rescue divers jumped in. Someone pulled Percy and Outteridge out while others conducted a headcount. They were one man short.
Percy realized the missing crew member was Simpson, who had been adjusting the small forward sail from a station along the hull. Percy leapt back into the 57-degree water and swam to the wreck, searching frantically amid the debris.
“I was just all the time hoping that he had fallen out earlier and was going to be found in the ocean, because I knew as every second went by things were getting less and less positive,” he says.
Some searched up and down the bobbing remains of the wing, others underneath the corners of the hulls. “One of the guys found him right at the bottom of the wing base,” Outteridge says. “We had to cut through the net and cut some electrical wires to get to the hull and then to fish him out.”
Simpson was placed on a spinal board and pulled onto one of the speed boats. Percy held his friend as rescue workers performed CPR. The boat ripped across the bay chop to nearby St. Francis Yacht Club. After 20 minutes of resuscitation efforts, Simpson was pronounced dead. It was 1:43 p.m.
The San Francisco coroner hasn’t yet issued a report on what happened to Simpson.
Percy flew to the U.K. that night with Simpson’s wife, Leah, and two sons, Freddie, 3, and Hamish, six months. Leah Simpson didn’t respond to an interview request through David Tyler, a public relations professional helping the family.
“That was a tough flight,” Percy says. “I had some lovely chats with Leah about Bart. And we had some sad moments.”
Simpson’s death came almost two months before the start of qualifying races. Race officials initiated a review, as did Artemis and the police. On May 14, organizers said the Cup would proceed.
About a week later, the Cup issued a new safety plan. Rules included lowering the top wind speed by 10 knots to 23 knots and requirements for new body armor, crew locater devices and high-visibility gear. After protests from Italy and New Zealand about how several changes would affect boat design, an international jury of yachtsmen found that the regatta director exceeded his authority. Racing proceeded with voluntary compliance.
That isn’t enough, says Dean Sicking, a highway safety engineer who 12 years ago investigated the crash that killed Earnhardt. Nascar mandated head-restraint devices, designed safer cars, opened a safety research center and modified walls at tracks around the country. There have been no fatalities in its top-level series since.
“It has been my experience that safety is an afterthought in many sporting activities,” Sicking says. “You hear that it’s just part of the sport. People occasionally drown due to a racing accident. That’s the way things were in Nascar. They just accepted that it happened about once a year until someone stood up and said, That’s too much, we can do better.”
Although the America’s Cup Event Authority did consult with Nascar after the Artemis accident, sailing’s long-established traditions work against sweeping changes. Citing a “fundamental principle of the sport of sailing,” the international jury ruling on the safety recommendations concluded that “each competitor and crew member must remain responsible for their own safety at all times.”
As in mountaineering, auto racing and hang gliding, there are inherent dangers to sailing, says Coutts, the CEO of Ellison’s team. At the same time, he says, the response to Simpson’s death may help, and “if the sport as a whole could develop something that would help prevent injuries or life-threatening situations, that would be a good outcome.”
For professional sailors, learning to handle the Cup boats has been sobering, Percy says. “It’s very unstable,” he says. “I’ve felt these boats were too dangerous.”
On a rainy May 16, boats from the four America’s Cup teams met at the spot where Simpson died. Eight bells tolled and representatives of each team laid a wreath on the water.
Tornqvist flew in to be with his team, attending the memorial and meeting with members individually and in groups. He told the sailors it was their decision whether to proceed. He says he could tell that Percy was devastated and might not want to keep going. After a few days, Tornqvist asked him, “Are you ready to lead?” If he wasn’t, Tornqvist knew the campaign was over.
Percy says he initially felt like quitting. Then he thought about the 140 people on the team and their families. He also spoke with Leah Simpson, who confirmed what he already knew: Andrew would have wanted them to stay in the race. Percy told Tornqvist he was ready. Tornqvist gathered his team.
“I said, ‘OK, we go forward,’” he says. “‘How does that sound?’ And I was met by stone silence. And I understood that this is so deep. But then one by one, they started to talk, and say, ‘OK, let’s give it a shot.’”
Working around the clock, the shore crew redoubled its efforts. The boat took shape in the hangar as first one beam, then the other, joined the two blue hulls. In July, workmen flipped the platform upside down and used cranes and forklifts to simulate different loads. The catamaran held together.
On July 22, a crane swung Big Blue over the edge of the pier. Tornqvist raised a glass of champagne. Two days later, the crew boarded, donned yellow crash helmets and wet suits emblazoned with a blue ribbon insignia honoring Simpson, and sailed onto the bay.
They had about two weeks before a semifinal showdown with the Italian Luna Rossa team backed by Prada SpA (1913) CEO Patrizio Bertelli. Percy says he felt a mix of joy and sadness. He wished Simpson was there.
“It was a perfect day,” Outteridge says, “and exactly what our team needed.”
On a sparkling Aug. 10, in its fourth semifinal race, Artemis came off the start looking like a winner. The Italians, leading three races to none, got into a bad spot as Outteridge attacked and the gun sounded. The boats touched. Then Big Blue leapt onto its foils and screamed toward the first turn at 32 knots. The Italians fell behind. First the gap was one boat length. Then it was four.
The turning mark approached. Artemis went to bear away -- the move that had capsized Big Red. Outteridge barked out a five-second countdown into the turn, and crew members scrambled across the net between the hulls.
This time the yacht soared around on the foils, a rooster tail of white spray arcing behind. For one moment, Artemis stood on the verge of an upset win that would prolong the series.
Then the umpires intervened with a late ruling that Outteridge’s pre-start moves had fouled Luna Rossa. Crew members kept Big Blue speeding along for a minute until they understood the call. They slowed to accept a time penalty as the Italians raced ahead. After two more penalties for course violations, Artemis lost by 2 minutes and 11 seconds, eliminated from the competition but crossing the line to a standing ovation from the crowd on shore. It was the team’s 13th day sailing the boat.
Tornqvist climbed aboard and embraced an emotional Percy. He said afterward he was proud of the way his team had worked together and competed, even after the tragedy.
With New Zealand three wins away from capturing the Cup, the results may fall short of Ellison’s vision for the event. The regatta has produced thrilling television images, along with back-and-forth racing, but the ratings didn’t measure up to those of competing sports events.
America’s Cup broadcasts on NBC averaged a 0.9 rating in big city markets, according to data provided by the network. The women’s final at the U.S. Open tennis tournament between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, on at the same time as the Sept. 8 race, drew a 4.9 rating on CBS.
The 72-foot catamarans may be sailing their last Cup races. Ellison said in an August television interview with Charlie Rose that if he is in charge of the next competition, the boats will probably be smaller -- 45-footers that would reduce the expense and risk. The leaders of the New Zealand team have also promised changes for the event.
While today’s yachts continue the America’s Cup tradition of testing the limits of design and engineering, Tornqvist says he thinks they’re too costly and their raw speed forces compromises to classic maneuvers of racing. He says he’s eager to see what the winners propose for the next regatta.
Four months after Cayard phoned with the news that Andrew Simpson was dead and his boat wrecked, Tornqvist says he’s learned from the Artemis campaign, with its heartbreaks and triumphs. He says he will continue championship racing. Percy has already signed on to sail with him, assuming the role of team manager and succeeding Cayard, Tornqvist said today.
“I’ve realized it was more difficult and challenging than I thought in the beginning,” Tornqvist says. “I hate losing, so I’m going to come back.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at firstname.lastname@example.org