America's Cup: Sailing The Line Between Control And Chaos

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The winner of the 34th America's Cup won't be crowned until late September, but the historic race has already claimed one life.  In early May, Olympic Gold Medalist Andrew Simpson drowned when the Swedish entry, Artemis, capsized. Last week, three of the competitors for the 34th America's Cup returned to practice after strict new safety measures were put in place. Team Artemis has yet to decide if they will re-join the competition.

When the 72-foot catamarans that will race this summer were first introduced, the massive boats were hailed as the high-tech saviors of the sport.  Now, some worry the crafts are "overpowered" and dangerous to sail.

With a new class like this, there are a lot of things we don’t know about the loads and the behavior of the boat. It’s a very high risk engineering adventure.

Dirk Kramers, Oracle design specialist

Training for Speed

Oracle Team USA’s headquarters occupies over 10 acres of reclaimed pier. Inside is the Area 51 of the sailboat-racing world. Opportunities to photograph meaningful details of the team’s stealthy boats are restricted. But amid the cavernous buzz of sail makers and boat builders one things is clear: these new super fast catamarans require a new generation of sailor.

Craig McFarlane is the team’s head athletic trainer. He leads a group of 15 through a series of high tempo pull-ups and bench presses.

“With these new boats they’ve got to be not only fit, but functionally fit," McFarlane said. "On these boats, it’s just absolutely full on."

America’s Cup sailors were once heavy muscled strongmen. McFarlane says now crew members must produce serious horsepower and maintain elite endurance, combining the best attributes of a nimble linebacker with the aerobic capacity of a sub 4-minute miler. This summer’s races will run about thirty minutes with each sailor’s heart rate pegged for the duration.

"The term athlete is not really synonymous with sailing, but I think that’s changing,” Mc Farlane said.

New Design Brings New Dangers

For this year’s America’s Cup, teams will race AC-72’s: a slick 72-foot carbon fiber catamaran. Sailors travel the 46 feet from hull to hull by running across trampoline-like netting. The 13-story rigid wing is as large and powerful as a human crew can manage without the use of electric winches. Dirk Kramers, a design specialist for Oracle, says the AC-72 pushes limits.

"Well, it’s especially with a new class like this, there are a lot of things we don’t know about the loads and the behavior of the boat. It’s a very high risk engineering adventure,” Kramer said.

Long before Artemis Racing’s lethal accident, sailors like Shannon Falcone were aware of this adventure’s inherent risks.  Crew members put their lives in the hands of designers, who try to balance safety with speed. And Falcone is pleased with the Oracle's decision to include recessed cockpits on the boat.

“We have a pretty sweet setup with our cockpits.  They are a pretty good safe haven if something does go wrong with the boat you know to tuck into and just hold on tight because you don’t want to be falling from that height if you capsize or pitch pole again,” Falcone said. “I hope it does not happen to anybody.”

It's unclear whether Oracle's recessed cockpit design could have saved the life of Artemis Racing's Andrew Simpson, who was trapped under the boat when it broke apart. The San Francisco police and America's Cup officials are investigating the accident, but their findings have yet to be released.

A Spring Test

Oracle's boat waits for wind on San Francisco Bay's atypically glassy water. (Jason Albert/Only A Game)
Oracle's boat waits for wind on San Francisco Bay's atypically glassy water. (Jason Albert/Only A Game)

In early April, more than a month before the accident, Oracle's marketing specialist and seasoned chase boat driver Kate Wilson shadowed the team's AC-72. We were headed towards San Francisco Bay with its wicked winds. But under the Golden Gate Bridge it was windless: the water glassy.

Oracle’s AC-72 bobbed below the bridge like an over-engineered buoy. Artemis’ AC-72 arrived for a test sail; they’re stalled out too. Soon, beyond the bridge, a line of dark water approached. Dark water is the most low tech indicator of approaching wind.

“And it’s about to hit us in five, four, three, two, one,” Wilson said.

The wind built to a gusting 20 knots. Like a sprinter out of the blocks, Oracle’s boat accelerated. The skipper and tactician stood calm in a rear cockpit. The remaining nine sailors swiftly turned the winches. Suddenly, the entire 72-foot length of Oracle’s boat hit that magic moment when the boat foils, or lifts. The hulls rode three feet above the water’s surface, balancing on rudders and two thin carbon fiber blades. It’s simple physics: foiling equals less drag and more speed.

With 350 horsepower, Wilson gunned the motor to keep pace with Oracle’s boat. She was easily outrun.

“So that was a jibe, the boat changed sides again,” Wilson said.

During the jibe, the entire crew emerged from their recessed cockpits, hustled around the wing, and started grinding the winches until the boat changed direction. Oracle's maneuver was successful, but Artemis Racing was having trouble foiling. And in this Cup, if you are not foiling you are left behind. Artemis’ AC-72 was sluggish; its bows dove deep and only grudgingly resurfaced.  It was a familiar sight to Oracle's Kate Wilson.

Lessons from October

“The day of the capsize, that’s what we were doing, we just kept doing that and doing that and what happened we kept popping back up and popping back up, and then one time we didn’t, so it is very scary to see,” Wilson said.

In October of last year, Oracle’s AC-72 pitched end over end. Amazingly, no sailors were seriously injured. But that was a wake up call. Since then, sailors have carried knives to cut away impeding objects and a small canister of compressed air for a few extra “emergency” breaths.

Oracle’s skipper, Jimmy Spithill, has a cool James Dean-confidence and a name befitting high consequence sailboat racing.

Spithill will help defend the Cup Oracle won in 2010. He’s daring and keen—the nautical world's version of a test pilot.

“To be honest, yeah these boats you are red lining all the time kinda like a Formula One car you are at your limit all the time,” he said. “What is hard for us is that our race track is changing every single day.”

Here on the bay, the tide’s always different, there’s possible fog, the velocity and shear of wind in continual flux. Compound this with the AC-72’s otherworldly speed and the fine line between control and chaos is easy to cross.

“With this boat, it’s so fast and things happen so quickly it’s all about anticipation.  You cannot react,” Spithill said. “You’ve got to be just ahead of it.  If you get a step or two behind on these boats, or something goes wrong, it just avalanches and you can never get ahead again. And that is something that is so new to this game.”

We spoke before the death of Andrew Simpson, but Spithill said a return to racing slower monohulls would be a setback.

“It’d be sort of like going back as a Formula One driver to, I don’t know, a Mini Cooper or something,” he said.

Organizers may re-think their vision for future America’s Cup races. One in which speed and safety are on equal footing. But the rush of sailing and watching these machines may be too tempting for the America’s Cup organizers to hit the brakes any time soon.

This segment aired on June 1, 2013.


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