SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Clouds hung over the America’s Cup sailing regatta on Friday after investigators asked the teams to temporarily halt practicing on blustery San Francisco bay following a deadly accident last week.
Organizers have said races will go ahead in July, despite growing public concerns over safety after a British champion sailor was killed when one of the sleek, ultra-fast AC72 catamarans built for the competition capsized and broke apart last Thursday.
They have left open the possibility of changes to the rules Of the race, brought to San Francisco by Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, whose team won the trophy in the 2010 event in Valencia, Spain.
After its first meeting on Thursday, a committee formed by organizers to review Swedish challenger Artemis Racing’s fatal accident asked the teams to suspend sailing both the 72-foot America’s Cup catamarans and the smaller AC45s until the middle of next week. The committee was due to meet with the teams on Friday.
Organizers have said they hoped to have recommendations from the committee within about two weeks. Among other factors, investigators will look at the structure of Artemis’ “Big Red” yacht, which Regatta Director Iain Murray has said differed significantly from the catamarans of other competitors.
Teams in the America’s Cup are required to stay within rules governing the design of their yachts but they also have leeway to customize their vessels with hydrofoils and other technology.
The death of Artemis’ Andrew Simpson, a two-time Olympic medalist, marked the second time that an expert crew on one of the high-tech yachts, estimated to cost around $8 million each, lost control and flipped their boat in the heavy winds and rip currents of San Francisco Bay.
Simpson was trapped underwater after the Artemis catamaran turned upside down and broke apart while training. Winds had been blowing on the water at 18 to 20 knots, or about 23 to 25 miles per hour, which race organizers described as typical for the bay.
On Thursday, crew mates from Artemis and the three other teams slated to vie for the trophy threw wreaths into the bay where he was killed.
The America’s Cup rules allow the winner of the most recent event - in this case Ellison’s team - to choose the venue and regulations for the next challenge, a series of races that begin in July and go into September.
Hoping to attract wider interest in the sport, Ellison’s Oracle Team USA created specifications that led to ultra-lightweight, two-hulled vessels with hard “wing” sails and hydrofoils that can lift most of the boat out of the water to reach speeds close to 50 mph.
But following the Artemis accident and an incident in October when Oracle’s catamaran capsized and was swept out to sea, criticism has grown that the boats may be too hard to maneuver in San Francisco’s Bay’s heavy winds and rip currents.
An Oracle team spokeswoman had no immediate comment on Friday, and a spokesman for the Artemis team could not be reached for comment. Artemis Racing has said it was in the process of conducting a review of the accident.
Prada fashion house cofounder Patrizio Bertelli, who heads the Luna Rossa Challenge team, has arrived in San Francisco to meet with officials and was expected to hold a news conference later on Friday. Bertelli has complained that the 2013 America’s Cup regulations have transformed it into an extreme sport.
C.W. Nevius, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, urged race officials to switch to the AC45s, which were used last year in early competitor eliminations, instead of the AC72s.
“The 72-foot catamarans are too much, too big, too powerful. Most of all, they are too dangerous,” Nevius wrote. “Someone needs to make a hard choice and say the race will go back to the 45-foot catamarans that raced last summer.”
Andy Turpin, managing editor of Latitude 38, a Bay area sailing magazine that had asked readers to share their thoughts about the accident, said about 80 percent of his readers also want the regatta to be sailed in the smaller boats.
“One of our readers made the analogy to the early days of Formula One racing. The biggest criticism is that they haven’t been on the water long enough,” Turpin told Reuters.
While Oracle has two AC72s, and Artemis has a second yacht that it has yet to launch in San Francisco Bay, Luna Rossa has only one. The fourth team, Emirates Team New Zealand, has only one fully commissioned AC72.
Reporting by Ronnie Cohen and Noel Randewich; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Alden Bentley