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Friday, May 10, 2013

Andrew Simpson: Sailor's Death Following Boat Breakup Forces Painful Questions

Posted By on Fri, May 10, 2013 at 11:15 AM

The wreck that cost Andrew Simpson his life - NOAH BERGER, A.P.
  • Noah Berger, A.P.
  • The wreck that cost Andrew Simpson his life

Andrew "Bart" Simpson is dead, and that's tragedy enough. Sadly, however, it can't end with that.

The Olympic gold- and silver-medalist drowned on the bay yesterday when the America's Cup AC72 catamaran he was racing with Team Artemis broke up, flipped, and trapped him beneath it.

The British sailor was just 36 -- and God forgive the polemicist who pushes a worldview by crassly exploiting this sad event.

And yet, questions must be asked. And, as anyone even loosely following the America's Cup knows, this is the second time the technologically advanced but crash-prone AC72s have flipped on the bay. In October, a Team Oracle catamaran foundered, causing great damage to the vessel but no injuries to the crew.

Yes, there's a pattern here -- but yesterday's crash was far more disturbing, and not just because a man was killed. October's mishap came as a result of a world-class crew attempting a difficult maneuver with a highly sensitive boat during extreme conditions. Yesterday, however, preliminary reports indicate that Artemis' catamaran simply broke up during a relatively placid day on the bay.

What's more, this boat was failure prone. Two beams connect the massive catamran's twin hulls and, yesterday, the forward beam failed. As a result, the hulls drifted apart into a V-shape, causing the boat to come apart and flip -- and pinning Simpson beneath for around 10 minutes.

Pushing new technology to its limits is one thing -- race car drivers crash, too. But yesterday's incident is more akin to a wreck in the driveway. Sailors don't get better than Simpson and his colleagues at Artemis and the other America's Cup teams -- but this appears to have been an engineering or design failure that negated their vast skill.

Just this month, a lengthy feature ran in Wired magazine titled "The Boat That Could Sink the America's Cup." That astoundingly relevant piece by Adam Fisher mainly focused on the AC72's prohibitive cost -- a major factor in only four teams competing in the race instead of the 17 or so event organizers sold the city on. It takes exceedingly deep pockets to build such a boat -- and, as the case may be, rebuild it after it crashes and breaks up. And crash they do: In Fisher's story Artemis CEO Paul Cayard predicts "It will be a miracle if we get through the summer without it happening to somebody ... We're going to start pushing harder, we are going to race, and those kinds of boats -- catamarans -- tip over."

click to enlarge Andrew "Bart" "Simpson
  • Andrew "Bart" "Simpson
Except when Cayard's team boat tipped, his able crew wasn't "pushing harder." The Artemis boat simply came apart on a relatively routine day. 

The AC72 is a technological marvel, but it's also new technology -- making its sailors an entire crew of Chuck Yeagers. Whether that's what's best for the forthcoming race is highly debatable. The cost and instability of the 13-story crafts have long elicited calls for alternatives. Last year, in the wake of Oracle's crash, the sailing magazine Latitude 38 called for cheaper, simpler boats to be substituted.

Race organizers made the decision to stay the course when Team Oracle's vessel last year broke up and drifted out of the Golden Gate. Whether they do so in the wake of a boat failing and killing a world-class sailor remains to be seen.

Unlike some of the other syndicates, Artemis does have a spare boat in the shed. Whether it'll use it is unknown. SF Weekly's message querying if the team will continue to race has not yet been returned.

Update, 12:40 p.m.: America's Cup officials claim the Artemis boat broke up during a maneuver described as "difficult" but "normal."

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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