SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) — One powerful gust of wind and a gusty turn is all it took to once again show how dangerous and daring the lead-up to the 34th America’s Cup has been.
Emirates Team New Zealand tore the trampoline tarp in the center of its catamaran and lost two men overboard before holding on to beat hobbled Italian Team Luna Rossa in a scary opener to the Louis Vuitton Cup finals Saturday.
Grinders Chris Ward and Rob Wadell, who could’ve been crushed by the hulls that crashed down after they tumbled over the side, were lifted out of the water by a rescue boat within seconds. Emirates skipper Dean Barker did his best to downplay the incident, saying both men walked away fine other than “some bangs and bruises” and the boat would be easily repaired overnight.
“It didn’t feel like we were ever in jeopardy of tipping it over,” Barker said. “That’s about as hard as you can probably push it and get away with it.”
The Kiwis still emerged victorious because their competition bowed out from their own mistakes.
The Italians scrambled to fix a bracket that holds the lines around the right daggerboard of their 72-foot catamaran just before the scheduled start. They caught a break when officials delayed the race 20 minutes waiting for the wind to drop below the 18.9-knot limit (21.74 mph).
Luna Rossa’s broken board wobbled up-and-down seconds after crossing the start line, and the team dropped out as it made more repairs. The Kiwis quickly had their boat foiling above the water, and they seemed to be flying away with an uncontested win until the near catastrophe.
As Barker made a sharp turn around a marker going 41 knots, or about 47 mph, he said a strong gust of wind occurred. The front of the hulls dipped under water, the carbon-fiber fairing on the trampoline peeled away and the two men tumbled overboard.
“We got a big puff at a bad time,” grinder Chris McAsey said. “I held on for dear life. I didn’t realize two guys had gone over until later on. Luckily, they’re OK.”
The second race of the best-of-13 series was postponed because the wind exceeded the 19.4-knot limit (22.32 mph) set for that race — adjusted depending on the tide — giving both teams time to make repairs. Two races will be held Sunday, wind permitting, and the makeup race will be Monday.
The winner of the series will face Oracle Team USA for the oldest trophy in international sports starting Sept. 7.
Regatta director Iain Murray expected the wind to approach — and possibly surpass — the wind strength limit he set for the second race and force a postponement. But wind for the first race, which was not expected to be an issue, teetered on the limit.
The frightening scene on the first day of the Louis Vuitton Cup finals is just the latest setback for the troubled regatta.
During a training run May 9, British sailor Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed in the capsize of Swedish Team Artemis Racing’s first boat. After Simpson’s death, Murray made 37 safety recommendations. The Kiwis and Italians filed protests over two highly technical issues, and won.
Oracle has been branded as cheaters by the two remaining challengers after it was found that two of its three prototype boats used in warm-up regattas last year and early this year were illegally modified. An international jury is investigating and could sanction Oracle with a fine, forfeiture of races in the America’s Cup match or disqualification.
Only three challengers built 72-foot catamarans for this summer’s competition and organizers had to scale back plans. In addition, there were several days in July when just one boat sailed around the course to collect a point because of the rules spat or repairs.
The dangers of these advanced catamarans are always present, too. Oracle capsized during a training session last October, and the Italians avoided their own accident when they put the hulls of their boat in the water against Artemis.
“Everything is too dangerous with these boats,” Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena said. “But at the same time, these are the boats we have to race with.”
While most of the summer has been filled with questions and controversies, organizers had hoped the Louis Vuitton Cup finals would revive the regatta.
Instead, the only thing the Italians are beating the Kiwis at so far is style points. Luna Rossa is backed by the Prada fashion house, its boat’s twin hulls are chrome and its silver gear — including crash helmets and life vests — make them look more like spacemen than sailors on scenic San Francisco Bay.
The Kiwis went 5-0 against the Italians in the round-robins, including the opener that Luna Rossa boycotted. The Kiwis twice beat the Italians by more than 5 minutes, and the closest margin was 2:19.
Emirates earned the right to advance straight to the Louis Vuitton Cup final based on its performance in the round-robins. Luna Rossa swept Artemis Racing 4-0 in the semifinals.
Two, five-leg races were planned each day to determine who will face Oracle. Each race was expected to last approximately 25 minutes, with a break of about 30 minutes between them.
“It’s a shame it started this way,” Sirena said, “because we felt pretty quick today.”
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