The death of British Olympic gold medalist Andrew Simpson during a practice run in San Francisco Bay has sparked questions about the safety of using ultra-fast catamarans in yachting's premier race. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.
All options are on the table, including canceling the America's Cup this summer, as investigators review the death of an Olympic gold medalist and the safety of new space-age yachts that are pushing the limits of technology, U.S. yachting administrators said Friday.
Andrew "Bart" Simpson, 36, the chief strategist for the Artemis Racing team, died Thursday when the yacht he and 10 colleagues were on capsized during a practice run near Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay.
Iain Murray, chief executive of America's Cup Race Management, which runs the world's most prestigious yacht race, said at a news briefing Friday that Simpson's 13,000-pound AC 72 catamaran nose-dived and broke into pieces. Simpson was submerged for more than 10 minutes — possibly trapped under the overturned boat — and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
All practice runs were canceled through the weekend as America's Cup officials, San Francisco police and Coast Guard investigators try to piece together what went wrong, said Stephen Barclay, chief executive of the America's Cup Event Authority.
Asked whether the regatta, which is scheduled for July through September, could be canceled, Barclay said, "Nothing's off the table," twice adding: "We will not be held to a timetable."
Canceling the 162-year-old regatta, the world's third-largest sporting event after the Summer Olympic Games and soccer's World Cup, would be a major blow to both the sport and the Bay Area.
In a report commissioned when the city was bidding for the regatta in 2010, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute projected that the three-month event would create 8,840 jobs and generate a total economic impact of $1.4 billion in the region — "three times the estimated impact of hosting the Super Bowl," it said.
Authorities provided few details about Thursday's accident, noting that the investigation was less than 24 hours old. But Murray acknowledged that the futuristic AC 72 boats, which made their debut last year, have raised questions in yachting circles.
Racing experts said the catamaran features a new design that allows sailors to lift the hull completely out of the water, leading to speeds as much as three times previous records — and sometimes to hydroplaning.
A similar AC 72 run by the current America's Cup holders, Oracle Team USA, capsized near the Golden Gate Bridge in October. No one was injured, but the boat sustained at least $2 million in damage.
"The safety onboard the boats has been discussed earlier, yes," Murray said.
Annie Gardner, who skippered the America³ Women's America's Cup team in 1995 and won a bronze medal in the 2006 World Sailing Games, said the AC 72 was meant to push the limits as far as they could go.
"This new America's Cup is a lot more like car racing than anything else we've ever done," Gardner told NBC 7 of San Diego.
Conditions on Thursday weren't considered unusual, with gusts between 25 mph and 35 mph and waves at 4 to 6 feet. But Rich Jepsen, chief executive of the Olympic Circle Sailing Club in San Francisco, told NBC Bay Area that at the speeds AC 72s can reach — 40 to 50 mph — "there is no room for error."
Dennis St. Onge, a renowned yachting photographer, said the boats were thrilling to watch, "kind of like spaceships for the technology."
"But when it comes down to it," he told NBC San Diego, "you just have human beings hanging on trying to operate them."