Death on San Francisco Bay: Did Boat’s Design Flaws Cause Tragedy?
It’ll probably be a while before there’s a definitive answer about why a Swedish America’s Cup catamaran went cartwheeling out of control on San Francisco Bay yesterday, killing British Olympic medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson. Simpson was trapped beneath the crippled boat for 10 minutes or more before rescuers could free him. Desperate attempts to resuscitate him failed.
But there are early indications that the boat’s design might have been flawed. According to a report in Wired, “The problem was with the boat itself, either faulty engineering or faulty construction. The boat simply broke apart under sail, folded, then flipped.”
Wired also reported that “the Artemis boat has had a history of cracking and problems with the carbon fiber used in the twin ‘beams’ — the two girders that lash the two narrow hulls together. The boat had been in and out of the shed numerous times in an attempt to correct those problems.”
During Thursday’s practice run, according to the report, “the forward beam — the girder in front of the sail — gave way during a practice run. The two hulls, no longer connected, began sailing in slightly different directions. This caused one hull to snap just forward of the aft beam, and the mast, held up by high-tension rigging connected to the front of the hulls, simply fell over. The boat began to cartwheel, ultimately trapping Simpson underneath and drowning him.”
It’s also clear that Simpson’s team, Artemis Racing, recognized the danger posed by a capsizing long before yesterday afternoon and provided some training on how to deal with it. Beyond disorientation and panic, the hazards also include the possibility of becoming trapped beneath the netted “trampoline” between the craft’s twin hulls.
The equipment worn by crew members added to the potential danger: wet suits and personal flotation devices (PFDs) might make it difficult to swim clear of an overturned boat. To address that, Artemis Racing conducted at least one capsize drill to train sailors on how to avoid getting trapped and how to respond if they did. Here’s an account of an Artemis capsize drill published on the America’s Cup website last October (though it’s important to emphasize it’s not known whether Simpson himself was present for the exercise):
Crewman Julien Cressant, a certified diver, organized a session where sailors were trapped under an overturned platform and had to make their way out from under the trampoline while being pushed underwater.
“We jumped into the water upside down and were held down and pushed down underwater,” (Artemis skipper Terry) Hutchinson said. “We had to access our spare air and crawl 14 meters underneath the net from one end to the other.”
Each Artemis sailor is equipped with a personal air canister for surviving such a situation, but Hutchinson said that the exercise highlighted the need to keep calm in an extreme moment.
“It highlighted how good or bad some people are in the water and the importance of the buddy system,” said Hutchinson, who also said that he isn’t a great swimmer. “Fingers crossed we never get into one of those situations, but the more comfortable we can be the better chances we’ll have of getting out unscathed.”
Hutchinson said that the air canister provides about 10 to 20 breaths of air, “depending on how much you’re hyperventilating,” and the amount of positive buoyancy the sailors wear makes it difficult to swim deep and out from the overturned platform.
“We’re wearing a PFD and a wetsuit, which is a lot of flotation,” said Hutchinson. “Once you hit the water you have to have the presence of mind to grab the spare air, get it in your mouth and accept the fact that you’re going to take in a little water… and not panic. Then you have to shimmy your way down 14 meters of trampoline to get out.
“It seems surreal,” Hutchinson continued. “It just highlights that we have a bit on.”