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Artemis capsize: What may have happened

Artemis AC72 America's Cup challenger
Artemis AC72 America's Cup challenger

It's far too early to tell what actually happened yesterday on San Francisco bay, when the second new generation America's Cup boat capsized and was destroyed in moderate weather.

But this much we do know; ... both the Oracle and Artemis team AC72s capsized and were essentially destroyed in winds and conditions that previous America's Cup class boats could have handled easily. The fact that Artemis team member Andrew Simpson lost his life in the latest capsize makes it all much more serious. Fatalities occur in every type of sailboat racing, regardless of their speed, size or high-tech design.

But the fact is that the larger, faster and more high-tech the boat is, the more chance there is for injury or worse to their crews. That's why the current crop of America's Cup boats require crash helmets and personal flotation gear for everyone onboard, something unheard of until recently.

Even the suggestion that helmets might be needed was scoffed at until fairly recently. A decade ago, even personal flotation vests - PFDs - were worn only rarely by most sailboat racing crews, and then usually only during ocean races at night. Sailing magazines and websites were full of heated debates about whether PFDs helped save lives or hindered physical movement onboard, adding to the danger. Far too often, it was left to personal choice as to what safety gear crew's used. Some skippers and owners insisted that such gear be used at all times, but that was rare. Even when most race organizing entities began strongly suggesting that PFDs be worn, they were generally ignored.

It wasn't until reports of sailboat racing accidents became more widely published, and until more than a few wrongful injury and death lawsuits were filed, that crews and owners began taking safety much more seriously, and began insisting that at least minimal safety gear be used by all crews, at all times.

While the use of PFDs has now become almost universal in sailboat racing, some safety devices, specifically safety harnesses that connect the crewmember to the boat, via one or two short leashes,still remain a point of contention. Both sides of this debate have valid points. While a leash will keep the sailor close to the boat in case of a capsize, they can also prevent the crewmember from removing themselves from under water if the harness is caught or unable to be released. Since many crewmembers involved in a capsize could easily be injured or unconscious and unable to release their harness leashes, the problem multiplies.

In the Artemis capsize, no harnesses were involved. The AC72 crews have to be too mobile at all times under sail to have to deal with hooking and unhooking their leash. But they do all wear helmets and some body armour and all wear PFDs to help keep them afloat once in the water.

One of the difficulties encountered when racing on the AC72s is that the boats have two thin hulls and two crossmembers, with space between, and that space is covered by netting, called a trampoline, that allows the crew to walk or crawl around the boat. This netting has to be strong enough to hold thousands of pounds of weight. The downside is that the netting can also prevent an injured or unconscious crewmember from reaching the surface if they are beneath the netting in a capsize. Though each crew usually carries a knife, that obviously does no good if he or she cannot reach or use it due to injury.

The very cold water temperatures of San Francisco bay can add to the danger, since it only takes a few minutes before even the strongest swimmer can weaken due to the cold. The AC72 crews all wear lightweight clothing that is designed to allow the intense movement needed on these boats, while also keeping them warm and relatively safe if they go overboard.

From all reports, Andrew Simpson was wearing a PFD and a helmet and team-issued clothing designed for easy movement plus some protection from the cold water. He may also have had a team-issued breathing apparatus which could be used if he was trapped underwater. But none of this would have helped him if he was injured during the capsize and possibly unconscious, and trapped under the trampoline netting.

- (Update: According to reported statements by the Newcastle Herald attributed to other crew members, Simpson was initially conscious after the capsize and was trapped under the netting and under water. According to the article other crew members gave him their team-issued personal breathing devices, which hold about ten breaths each, while trying to free him.)

None of this is certain at this point, only supposition. We'll all know more as the accident investigation continues. But at this point, it appears that this very tragic accident was very possibly unavoidable given the circumstances. It also appears that no one cut any corners regarding safety or boat design.

The boats being used are a brand new design, using relatively new materials. Carbon-fiber, the primary material used throughout the boats, has been in use for a few decades in aircraft, race-cars and sailboats, it's breaking-limits in some design applications are still a bit of a mystery. Carbon-fiber wings and suspension parts used in Formula One cars have failed for no apparent reason, and similar failures have happened in America's Cup boats. Though most testing can now be done reliably on computers, there is still real-life trial-and-error involved.

All things considered, it appears at this point that everything that could be done was done. In some cases, possibly including this terribly tragic one, the only real cause is simply bad luck.


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