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Sailing Safely after the America’s Cup Death

I would like to write about the America’s Cup as I have not yet found a good source of information on recent events.

I am by no means an insider although I admit I’ve been racing high-performance catamarans for over a decade that are similar to AC boat designs and I work in risk management.

Perhaps there’s someone out there who can provide a more authoritative perspective, but in the meantime here’s my amateur and unqualified opinion on what recent accidents may mean for sailing in America.

It is too easy to say loss of life is a reality in high-risk events. Likewise it is too easy to say precautions are the obvious answer. The difficult question is whether the America’s Cup authority, known for bias and gerrymandering for self-serving victories, should be trusted with assessment and decision on risk.

Are multi-hulls dangerous?

For as long as I can remember sailors in the Bay have discussed that multi-hulls capsize ungracefully and permanently. Trimarans and Catamarans were banned in some of the large coastal races I’ve done (Monterey Bay) specifically because event sponsors and support wanted to minimize risk. Believe me, I would have sailed a multi-hull if the option were allowed; we would have cut our race time in half and less time on the water is arguably more safe. Subsequently, over the past three years at least, there has been discussion of whether someone will die when a 72ft carbon platform flips over.

Don’t get too worked up about multi-hulls, however. Speed is an essential ingredient in survival (boats can run from danger) and amateurs on multis in heavy weather have proven they can fare better than monohulls. We also have to admit boats with one hull are statistically more deadly. There are many, many years of data on monohulls involved in tragic and fatal accidents; not least of all was the recent and local Farrallones Tragedy.

Mining the data on events like the 1979 Fastnet disaster (15 deaths, 69 monohulls retired) and the 1998 Sydney-Hobart disaster (5 boats sank, 66 boats retired from the race, 6 sailors died, and 55 sailors were taken off their yachts, most by helicopter) has taught us a lot about risk.

One lesson is that chances of survival in difficult weather are significantly higher for boats over 35 feet long. This is related to the engineering. Larger boats are typically made to handle off-shore conditions and more continuous use than day-sailors.

If we dig a little deeper into lesson one, we find lesson two: pushing boats into heavy weather conditions creates unfair or at least unintended competition. Survival conditions impose a completely new set of criteria for success. Sailors of any experience know this well. I can think of at least a dozen hair-raising experiences I have had on boats and even some near-death moments. Here are a few relevant examples:

In 2003 a storm blew through Louisiana that decimated the A-Class Catamaran North American Championships. It was my first major race on a new boat and suddenly I found myself sitting among the top ten competitors in America. Why? I had grown up sailing so it was natural for me to drop into survival mode — get my boat across the line and to shore in one piece. It was sad for me to watch far better sailors, even Olympic medalists, crash and burn. They pushed on with their prior competition as I pulled back, sailing through an asteroid field of broken boats. Only 11 of us finished among more than 40 boats. It was a victory I didn’t want.

Similarly, I found myself crossing the finish line in 17th place at the 2005 A-Class Catamaran World Championships after the wind disappeared. Nearly 100 boats drifted. Again I switched into survival mode, pegged a line of breeze and swooped to a bitter-sweet victory over sailors usually far better than me. Although very exciting to be just seconds from top 15 in the world, it still was not a wanted victory.

First Place at SCYC
Me sailing an International A-Class Catamaran in light wind

I have many more examples but in 2012 I took a different role. I rode a rescue jet ski at the A-Class Catamaran North American Championships. I could barely operate the jet ski the sea state was so rough. Within just a few hours I had I rescued one of the best sailors in the world, who had become separated from his boat, as well as towed four capsized, dismasted and exhausted top-tier international competitors to shore. From this experience I wrote a detailed explanation on how to use tow lines and a power-boat to carefully rescue turtled (upside-down) high-performance catamarans.

Perhaps you can see why I want to articulate my thoughts on what is happening after the Artemis catamaran disaster. I’ve been thinking about multihull risk management for a long time.

Why does baseball stop when it rains?

Sailing has weather guidelines. Don’t sail when it’s too windy, don’t sail when it’s not windy. It should be as simple as canceling a tennis match or a baseball game. Instead it’s a complicated debate about who can “handle” risky conditions.

People talk about the Artemis accident in terms of boat sea-worthiness yet that’s not the correct focus of inquiry.

Here’s what I believe to be the real story on the America’s Cup accident. Team Artemis made a critical risk calculation error early in their campaign related to structural design. The boat was compromised when they tried to work around the rules. This led to an eventual critical failure and death.

What was the error? AC rules specify a limited number of days sailing on the water for the first 72 foot platform. This could in theory reduce research and design costs. Instead it created control evasion as teams wanted to source design data.

To get around the “sailing” rule Artemis put their AC72 “big red” on the water without a wing attached. They set out to accumulate data on hulls. Although this avoided using up precious days “on water” it required a different power source. Powerboats were attached by line to pull the platform at speed.

Preparation and study of load is where things went awry; the design of the boat was for wing strain, not arbitrary tow lines. As some might have expected the introduction of intense power loads damaged big red’s structure — the main beam that was designed to sit beneath a wing was cracked. The ultimate failure of “big red” on its last day on the water was related to the main beam failing…again.

Thus I think the Artemis accident should be seen as an unfortunate design failure, but not directly related to sailing. It was a failure to anticipate tow line strain coupled with continuing to sail on a damaged structure. It had nothing to do with abilities of any sailor on board (unlike the Oracle capsize, which was the result of pilot error during extremely difficult weather).

In fact it is easy to see how a wing, due to stiffness and subsequent efficiencies, actually puts less load on the structure than the cloth sails we used to use. So I hope people see why it is important to see that beam damage from being under tow should not be misrepresented as wing load risk or even foiling risk.

If we want to avoid a structural failure risk in future we must consider the Artemis disaster in terms of load edge-cases. Whether it is a tow line or a force 10 gale, applying unanticipated amounts of stress on untested structure is a recipe for surprise. You could say the same for airplanes or any structure. A massive storm, a line tied to the end of a wing…these are dangers to face outside normal operating conditions.

Tragedy and leverage

This leads me to the most controversial aspect of what has happened since the incident. There is a conflict of interest with a competition authority that is paid by the defending competitor. When they rule on design changes we have to ask if they are making decisions based on competitive advantage.

Plus we know that Oracle has been playing catch-up with their design. Their boat clearly was not designed to foil above the water. That is my guess why every time you see Oracle 17 in pictures they’re flying a hull, yet the other AC boats are flying level. If you’re foiling you don’t need to sail at any angle, right? You already have your hulls out of the water.

Oracle Hulls Unbalanced
Oracle Hulls Unbalanced

ETNZ Hulls Balanced
ETNZ Hulls Balanced

This is not to say the Oracle design team is entirely off target. I see some design innovation advantages (i.e. the giant pod beneath the mast assists with flow, effectively extending the force of the wing). The fact remains, however, that a defender playing catch-up to challengers is going to be under pressure to eliminate the gaps. Oracle already has demonstrated they are not above cheating to catch up.

It appears to me at first look that findings, supposedly related to safety, are aimed at eliminating challenger technology that Oracle sees as a threat to their victory. Safety is in danger of being used as an excuse to help the defender win instead of directly addressing real risks.

If Oracle plays a corruption card to win they deserve not only to lose the cup, they should be ashamed for doing exactly what they promised would end with their leadership. The cup has been steeped in a history of cheating and spying for advantage. Using the Artemis tragedy and safety for competitive leverage will take us to a new low.

The burden therefore is upon the defender and their race authority to transparently and clearly explain any required changes in terms of real risk. This is a critical moment of big data analysis of risk for Oracle; it can help or seriously hurt American sailing. I hope they use it wisely.

Posted in Energy, History, Sailing, Security.

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