Hi-Tech Catamarans Criticized After Sailor Dies

As America's Cup officials investigate the tragic drowning of Olympian Andrew Simpson last week in San Francisco, some in the sailing community are questioning the safety of the ultra-fast high tech catamarans featured in the upcoming race.

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In San Francisco, organizers of the America's Cup race say the event will go on as scheduled in July. That's despite the death of a British sailor during a practice session last week. Olympian Andrew Simpson drowned after his high-tech catamaran capsized. He was pinned underwater for about 10 minutes. America's Cup officials say they will investigate the incident, but they believe the sailboats are safe. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, not everyone agrees.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Even if you don't know the first thing about sailing, the deafening roar of a high-tech catamaran sailing at 40 knots will tell you that the upcoming America's Cup race is on the cutting edge in more ways than one.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES SPLASHING)

GONZALES: These boats are high-tech prototypes built specifically for this race. They are double-hulled, 72 feet long - hence the designation AC72 - and they're 46 feet wide. The fixed sail, which resembles an airplane wing, is 131 feet tall. That's right - 13 stories tall.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is sailing now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How you like me now?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The America's Cup comes alive.

GONZALES: This YouTube video is produced by the America's Cup organizers led by billionaire Larry Ellison. It features sharply edited images of these catamarans skating across choppy waters looking more like a spacecraft than a sloop of yesteryear.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The America's Cup.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: One slip could be catastrophic.

GONZALES: These yachts scream speed and power. So much so that when they go fast enough they actually pop up out of the water and cruise on hydrofoils.

ANTHONY SANDBERG: When you think of seven tons worth of boat and 12 men being lifted out of the water - a 135-foot sail - and fundamentally it's resting and riding on a foil that's only maybe three or four square feet.

GONZALES: Anthony Sandberg is the president of OCSC, a sailing and adventure company in Berkeley.

SANDBERG: Fundamentally, you just have an incredible dance. So it's like an elephant dancing on the head of a pin. I think it's just really pretty amazing. At 40 miles an hour. And they can even go to 50. We don't know really the limits of how fast they can go.

JOHN ROUSMANIERE: I've described these boats as like Indy cars without brakes. You really can't stop them.

GONZALES: John Rousmaniere has written extensively about sailing and the history of the America's Cup. Even from New York, he's been monitoring news of the accident that took the life of British sailor Andrew Simpson.

ROUSMANIERE: The real question right now is - and even before this terrible accident - were these boats too much for the sailors, even for these sailors?

GONZALES: Little is known about why the Artemis team racing boat capsized. Was it structural failure, or was the boat damaged? And it wasn't the first time one of these boats cracked up. Last October, another AC72, of Oracle Team USA, the defending cup champions, turned over in the bay. Rousmaniere says there many in the sailing community who doubt the safety of these boats.

ROUSMANIERE: The evidence is that their safety is really questionable. And when you have a death involved, that's serious business.

GONZALES: But in San Francisco, America's Cup officials say the accident isn't enough to delay the race or prompt a shift back to using smaller catamarans. They did announce the formation of a review committee to investigate everything from weather conditions to boat design, but they stress that these are complex boats designed for a cutting-edge competition with many potential rewards and risks.

KIMBALL LIVINGSTON: So everybody is pushing an edge that we haven't seen before.

GONZALES: Kimball Livingston is a senior editor for Sail Magazine.

LIVINGSTON: These boats are prototypes, and until you're beyond the edge, you don't know where it is. It's behind you.

GONZALES: And America's Cup organizers are betting that the elements of speed, excitements and danger will help draw a new audience to their sport. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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