SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS/KPIX 5)— America’s Cup officials expressed sadness Friday and seemed to have few answers one day after a deadly boating accident claimed the life of 36-year-old Olympic sailor Andrew “Bart” Simpson when his catamaran nosedived during a difficult maneuver and broke into many pieces.
“What happened yesterday was not on the radar for any of us,” said America’s Cup Regatta Director Iain Murray of Thursday’s fatal wreck of the Artemis AC-72 during practice runs in the San Francisco Bay. “Artemis and Oracle were out there training in what they had been doing for months. And looking frankly quite good.”
Officials have not ruled out cancelling the America’s Cup Race scheduled for this summer based on the outcome of multi-agency investigations currently underway into the cause of the tragedy.
“Nothing is off the table,” said Stephen Barclay, chief executive of the America’s Cup Event Authority at a news conference. “We need to know what happened.”
Murray said practice runs were suspended for the next several days and Artemis Racing officials had not indicated whether they still planned to continue in the event – if held.
Murray said Artemis, with Simpson and his 11-man crew onboard – each with oxygen bottles on their person, was bearing away from a marker on Treasure Island in swift winds when it nose dived Thursday afternoon.
“All that we know is the boat ended up capsized with the hulls upside down, broken in half,” Murray said of the outcome of the difficult, but normal, sailing move.
It took 10 minutes to locate Simpson, who was trapped under some solid sections of the yacht and out of sight to those who were looking for him. By the time he was found and pulled ashore, it was too late to save the British Olympian.
The area of the capsizing – a “triangle” between Treasure Island, Angel Island and Alcatraz Island that is not part of the planned race course – was “a windier spot on the Bay.” But even with winds of 15-20 knots with occasionally higher gusts, it was not considered to be “extreme conditions,” Murray noted.
Barclay said there could be changes made with the designs of the 72-foot high-tech sailboats once the results of safety probes by the San Francisco Police Dept., U.S. Coast Guard and the America’s Cup organization are concluded.
“Obviously a catamaran is more prone to capsizing than a mono-hull,” he said. “Whether boats are safe or unsafe, we’re not going to speculate on those things.”
“We take the safety of our sport very seriously and respect the ocean at all times,” added Murray. “We are constantly trying to improve the way we manage these boats.”
In addition to sailors wearing crash helmets and life vests, chase boats carry doctors and divers, Barclay said.
“There are lots of precautions that are taken, and some of those are as a result of Oracle’s mishap last year,” he said.
Oracle’s $10 million boat capsized in 25-knot winds last October, and strong tides swept it four miles past the Golden Gate Bridge.
No one was injured, but the rough waters destroyed the 131-foot wing sail.
Artemis Racing officials didn’t attend the Friday news conference, but chairman Torbjorn Tornqvist issued a statement about the death of Simpson, strategist for the team that represents a Swedish yacht club.
Tornqvist said Simpson “was central to Artemis Racing, both in the course of racing and our lives. His presence and personality was a binding force and he will be missed.”
“Right now, the primary focus of Artemis Racing is on the well-being of our team members and their families, and the America’s Cup competition will remain second to that,” he said, adding that the team “will conduct a thorough analysis and review of this accident and will be looking at how the risks inherent to such competitive sailing can be limited in the future for the safety of the team and all competitors in the sailing community.”
Simpson won two Olympic medals in sailing, a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Games and a silver medal in the 2012 Games in London, according to team officials.
“Andrew Simpson was a hugely accomplished sailor and Olympian,” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, a former Olympic sailor from Belgium, said in a statement. “He died pursuing his sporting passion.”
It was the second time a sailor has died during training for the America’s Cup, according to race officials. In 1999, Martin Wizner of the Spanish Challenge died almost instantly when he was hit in the head by a broken piece of equipment.
No deaths have been recorded during the actual racing since its inception in 1851.
“Passing away in any sport is tragic and the emotions and the feelings of everyone are very raw. I can’t imagine, actually, what the family must be feeling at this time,” Barclay said.
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