America's Cup - May 2013

“This was the week that Larry Ellison lost control of the America’s Cup,” was the San Francisco Chronicle’s assessment of the event after the death of Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson. The 34th America’s Cup was thrown into turmoil after the break-up and capsize of Artemis Racing’s AC72 resulted in the drowning of the British sailor who was trapped beneath the wreckage of the crumpled red catamaran.

Bart, who leaves behind a wife and two young sons, had only recently been recruited to the Swedish team following the appointment of his best friend Iain Percy to the skipper’s job after Terry Hutchinson vacated the role at the end of last year. Together, Percy and Bart won two Olympic medals, gold in 2008 and silver last year at London 2012.

The first time I met Andrew Simpson was back in 1990 when I was invited along to do a day’s coaching at Pangbourne School in Berkshire. As someone who had done well on the university team racing circuit, I was invited along to teach a bunch of keen 13 year olds about the rudiments of the game. Trouble was, there was this big lad called Andrew who kept on asking difficult questions, to which I didn’t know the answer. I found him a little bit intimidating, to be honest. I wasn’t expecting the third degree from someone who had only just started racing. But his questions were fair enough. It seemed he already knew more about the sport than I did.

After that initial encounter, it wasn’t that surprising to find him in the British Olympic Squad a few years later. Bart was a talented Finn sailor, coming 3rd at the 2003 Worlds. Trouble was, one of his best friends - a certain Ben Ainslie - was better. Bart looked doomed to be one of the ‘nearly men’, a generation of talented British sailors who were unfortunate to be born in the same generation as the unstoppable Ainslie.

However, Bart’s chance to shine came when he started crewing the front of the Star for his best mate Iain Percy. They should have been a good tip for a medal at the 2008 Olympics in China, but an overcomplex technical programme had set them off on the wrong track. Finishing 52nd at the 2008 Star World Championships hardly suggested a medal was on the cards a few months later in Qingdao.

In the days leading up to the Olympic regatta, the rumours seeping out of the measurement tent in Qingdao were that the British Star boat was struggling to measure, and prospects for a Star medal appeared bleak. Then, on the eve of the first Star race, I caught a moment with Bart. “How’s it going?” I asked him. Bart winked back: “We’ll be alright, Ricey.” I couldn’t believe it. Such bravado in the face of such adversity. But it was just Bart telling how he saw it. And he was right, because they did more than just alright, winning the gold medal in a humdinger of a medal race that went down to the wire. You could see how much it meant to both Percy and Bart as they punched the air and gave each other bear hugs that would crush most mortals. This was Percy’s second gold medal, having won in the Finn in Sydney eight years earlier. But to have done this with his best friend, and come through all that adversity to reach the top of the podium, it meant so much more this time.

Apart from the elation of that celebration, Bart was as level-headed and as unfazed by success as anyone you could find on the Olympic circuit. He was a no-fuss, no-bullshit kind of guy, and he probably would have been bemused by the turmoil that his death has caused to the wider world of the America’s Cup. Bart’s death has sent the event into a tailspin as the whole ethos of the 34th America’s Cup has been called into question.

“What happened yesterday was not on the radar for any of us,” said Iain Murray, regatta director and CEO of America’s Cup Race Management. A former America’s Cup skipper from Fremantle 1987 and a multiple champion in the heyday of the fast and furious Sydney Harbour 18ft skiffs, Murray is well respected, but must have regretted this comment almost as soon as he’d said it. It made the organisers of the America’s Cup looked flat-footed and out of touch.

The organisers rallied themselves a few days later by announcing they were putting together a Review Committee to conduct a thorough review of the Artemis incident, with the aim of putting forward recommendations for making the 34th America’s Cup safer.

Prada billionaire and owner of the Luna Rossa team, Patrizio Bertelli, fired a broadside at the event. “The way it is now, is not good. It is necessary that those responsible take note. Not everyone has realised that we have gone from a romantic America’s Cup to an extreme one. This Cup with the AC72s is too extreme, they have to realise it and change, revise the rules, everything. This Cup will be the first but also the last with the AC72s. They chose a race course which is basically on the open sea without any type of safety. We need to change but I’ll wait to see what the guys tell me. If they told me to stop, that wouldn’t be a problem for me.”

Ironically, when the organisers asked all teams to desist from doing any sailing on the AC72 and AC45s until the review committee had completed its work, the Italians defied the request by going sailing for the first time on San Francisco Bay with their AC72.

When Iain Murray presented the findings of the Review Committee two weeks after the Artemis crash, the list of recommendations numbered 37, with massive implications for the running of the event. While these recommendations have yet to be written into regulations, it’s clear just how far and fast the event is going to have to move with just six weeks until the start of racing in the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Here’s a snapshot of some of those proposed changes:
  • The maximum sailing weight specified in AC72 Class Rules shall be increased by 100kg - which makes you wonder if designers and builders have been struggling to build the boats sufficiently strongly for the harsh conditions of San Francisco Bay.
  • No guest racers aboard an AC72 yacht whilst racing - giving away one of the unique selling points of the Cup compared with other major sporting events, ie. the ability for VIPs to get the thrill-ride of a life time.
  • Wind Limits: Reduced to 20kts in July, 21kts in August, and 23kts in September. This is significantly down from the 30kts originally specified and shows how safety is now taking precedence over TV schedules. Similarly, flexible start times are being proposed along with the removal of fines for not competing.
This was the Cup that was going to be built around the needs of the spectator and the TV schedules, as the critics have said, ‘putting the show before the sport’. Following Bart’s untimely death, the ambitions of this made-for-TV Cup are being significantly reined in.




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