Sailing beyond the edge

After the Artemis sailing tragedy, are the America’s Cup organisers right in their pursuit of a high-octane spectacle?

Larry Ellison should be a very worried man right now.

As the man behind Oracle Team USA – the current holders of the America’s Cup – it was his vision to see the venerable sailing regatta transformed into a high-octane spectator sport, raced in the kind of yachts never seen before.

Now a sailor is dead, and questions about the safety of the AC72 boats are growing ever louder.

That’s not to blame Ellison, or indeed anyone. At the time of writing, there is no clear evidence about exactly what caused Artemis Racing’s big red catamaran to capsize and break apart on San Francisco Bay. 

All that’s known is that one of the crew – British sailor Andrew Simpson – didn’t get out alive.  That is a tragedy for his family, and for the sport which – for all its bickering and infighting at this highest level – is very tight-knit.

The question to be asked now on a sporting level is, was this change in the regatta truly necessary?

For those unfamiliar with the America’s Cup, it used to be raced in solid but perhaps unspectacular monohull boats. The racing was offshore, away from the crowds, and was more of a drag-race than a tight duel. Barring major gear failure or a big wind shift, the boat that got out to an early lead usually won the race.

Ellison and the Oracle team wanted to change that. They wanted the America’s Cup to be a spectator sport, with fantastically fast boats battling on tight race courses. It would be able to be viewed from shore, and importantly would look great on television. This would be, as Oracle Team USA’s CEO Russell Coutts put it, “sailing for the Facebook generation, not the Flintstones generation”.

And so was born a new class of yacht: the AC72. Incomparable to the old monohulls, this was a super-fast 72-foot catamaran, capable of sailing twice the speed of the wind and ‘flying’ on foils which lifted the two hulls clean out of the water. ‘Spectacular’ didn’t quite do the AC72 justice. People who’ve been around sailing for years have been floored by what the boat can do.

But that sort of ‘sailing on the edge’ requires a new level of safety. Crew members wear body armour, carry a knife to cut themselves free from any rigging in an emergency, and in some cases have a small oxygen canister strapped to them for what could be a life-saving breath of air.

But as we see in the case of Artemis Racing and Andrew Simpson, none of that was enough to stop a routine training exercise from turning deadly. Yes the old monohulls were a bit boring, but there was a lot less chance of anything like this happening whilst sailing on them.

The America’s Cup is ultimately a sport, and huge changes have been effected to turn it into a genuine spectator sport like football or cricket. 

But spectator sport is not supposed to be life-or-death. It’s supposed to be exciting, entertaining, and fulfilling for those chasing the trophy. A sailor shouldn’t be thinking ‘this could be the last time I see my family’ when he or she steps off the dock and onto that boat in the morning.

No-one will deny the extraordinary speed and agility of the AC72s and their sailors, and the potential they have to turn a niche sport into something for the masses to enjoy.

But Ellison’s vision (not for a minute to suggest it is comparable to the loss of Simpson’s life) may also have been lost with this tragic accident. 

The 34th America’s Cup will almost certainly go ahead as planned this summer.  But it will be no surprise if it ends up being the only outing for its ‘spectacular’ 72 foot centrepiece.