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Death at the America's Cup: When did sailing get so dangerous?
A deadly accident renews the debate over whether the yachts in this summer's races are too fast
The Artemis Racing AC72 catamaran lies capsized after flipping over in the San Francisco Bay, May 9.
The Artemis Racing AC72 catamaran lies capsized after flipping over in the San Francisco Bay, May 9. AP Photo/Noah Berger
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two-time Olympic sailing medalist, Andrew "Bart" Simpson, was killed Thursday when a 72-foot catamaran flipped in the San Francisco Bay during training for this summer's America's Cup races. Rescuers said the 36-year-old Brit was trapped underwater for as long as 10 minutes beneath the trampoline connecting the twin hulls of the boat, which is owned by Sweden's Artemis Racing. It appears to have knifed head first into the water and flipped end over end, an accident similar to the highly publicized capsizing last fall of defending champion Team USA Oracle's boat.

The tragedy re-ignited a debate over the safety of a new class of high-tech America's Cup yachts that are designed to slice through the water at unprecedented speeds. The yachts, which have 131-foot-tall rigid wing sails, can reach 45 mph. Switching from traditional single-hulled sailboats to these newfangled ones — which have been described as "monsters, beasts, freaks" — is part of an effort to attract fans by making the America's Cup what one organizer called "NASCAR on the water." But are these sleek, speedy catamarans too dangerous?

The answer, say many sailing enthusiasts, is now painfully clear. Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison — who, as winner of the last Cup in 2010, got to pick the rules for this year's competitors — chose the AC72s to make the races faster and more exciting. But it's just not worth it, says Seth Stevenson at Slate. The boats are so expensive — $10 million a pop — and so problem-prone that only a paltry four teams have signed on to challenge Oracle. And for what?

I'm not sure the average spectator can tell the difference between a sailboat race in which the two boats are at all times on the edge of catastrophe and one in which they're both just really fast. The rich people operating these teams may have fetishes for expensive designs, but I simply want to see expert sailors squaring off against each other, using identical equipment, such that skill and not material provides the winning margin. If I ran the Cup, I'd make an announcement tomorrow: Let's ditch the AC72s and go old school — we can race comparatively pokey 12-meter monohulls with soft sails, like the Cup used to use. It's not about the boats, it's about the people in them. [Slate]

But couldn't there be ways to turn down the danger a notch and still up the excitement? Some people think that's the way to go. Leaders of Oracle and Artemis, the challenger of record, were the ones who agreed on this Cup's rules, including the design of the boats and the course — a mix of straightaways and figure-eight maneuvers close to shore and bleachers full of spectators.

The latest accident presents an opportunity to make improvements, says says Al Saracevic at the San Francisco Chronicle:

Sport is fraught with peril. And athletes have died in competition before. But in many cases, important safety concessions resulted from the tragedy. Baseball introduced a batting helmet. Football refined its headgear. Auto racing, perhaps the closest corollary to this suped-up form of sailing, has made endless concessions to speed and safety over the years.

Now it is time for sailing to step up to the task at hand. Put the egos and the economics aside and make sure this race is safe. [San Francisco Chronicle]

Others say it's too early to draw any conclusions about what caused Thursday's deadly accident. In fact, says Adam Fisher at Wired, the early indications suggest that excessive speed wasn't the problem — the boat wasn't even in race mode. "Preliminary reports indicate Artemis' boat didn't capsize because the sailors were pushing too hard or made a mistake, as was the case with Team Oracle. The problem was with the boat itself, either faulty engineering or faulty construction." The boat, which had been returned to the shop numerous times to repair cracks in the beams that held the two narrow hulls together, "simply broke apart under sail, folded, then flipped," says Fisher.

Before we condemn a whole class of boats, let's figure out what happened to this one.

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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