Andrew Simpson obituary: Sailor who won gold at the Beijing Olympics

His colleague Andy Green said that before going to the US he had been thinking about retirement

Andrew Simpson was one of the most successful British sailors of recent times. He was known to his friends as “Bart” after the cartoon character Bart Simpson, and his nickname reflected a lively sense of humour. But the fun-loving sportsman was above all a serious competitor who strove to maintain his world-class performance levels in every race.

Simpson was born in Chertsey, Surrey, in 1976 and started sailing at the age of six with his father. It was at Christchurch when he was 12 that he was spotted by the UK National Racing coach, Jim Saltonstall, who told me, "I first came across him when I was the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) racing coach. He came to me on recommendation from his club that he should be good enough to be part of the youth squad." Saltonstall noted: "He was an excellent, very talented lad. He was always in the top 10 area but never quite made it to the apex. The youth programme was his launching platform."

Through strong coaching and hard work Simpson progressed in his early twenties to world class events. He had started his sailing career in Laser single-handed dinghies and moved on to Finns in 2000, a group dominated then, as now, by Ben Ainslie. Simpson gained his first major success with a silver medal at the Finn Europeans the following year.

In 2003 he went on to win gold at the US Nationals and Bronze at the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) World Championships and was ranked fourth in the world by May of that year. After he teamed up with his lifelong friend Iain Percy in 2007, the pair won bronze in the Star class at the ISAF World Sailing Championships in Portugal. Percy said presciently of the result: "It's a stepping stone for us on the road to the Olympics and we've proven we're up there with the rest of them – with a bit more practice time we'll be making the top step."

At Beijing the following year Simpson and Percy made the dream a reality, after fighting a dramatic battle against Sweden. Two points behind at the beginning of the medal race, the pair finished fifth, well ahead of their rivals, and won gold, the fourth for Team GB that year. He was awarded an MBE in the 2009 New Year Honours for services to sport.

Simpson again trained with Percy in the build-up to the London 2012 Olympics and they gained a silver medal in the Star class at Weymouth after going head-to-head with their old rivals, Sweden. Percy said at the time, "It is gutting but we sailed well all week. In hindsight, we made too many mistakes in terms of reading the wind-shift. We have to take it on the chin." Simpson said "We didn't get it right. Fair play to the Swedes, they had a great regatta and did a great job."

He lived in Sherborne, Dorset, but had recently moved temporarily to San Francisco with his family, so that he could train for the 34th America's Cup. As the strategist for the team, he sought to use his experience to give something back to the sport.

His friend, fellow sailor Andy Green, said of the move: "Once you've shown your mettle in the Olympics, the opportunity to get involved in the America's Cup is often very appealing for amazing sailors like Andrew." Green noted that Simpson "was questioning whether he wanted to continue sailing, but because his friend Iain Percy was at Artemis he went over there in February and started racing with them as a valuable asset."

It was during a training session on Thursday that the 72-foot catamaran, Artemis, capsized in San Francisco Bay, near Treasure Island. The entire 11-man crew were thrown into the water and Simpson was trapped beneath the vessel. An emergency services team took him to shore but was unable to revive him.

Paul Cayard, chief executive of the Artemis Racing team, made the announcement, saying, "It is with immense sadness that Artemis Racing confirms the tragic death of crew member Andrew 'Bart' Simpson... The entire Artemis Racing team is devastated by what happened. Our heartfelt condolences are with Andrew's wife and family."

John Derbyshire, Performance Director at the RYA, said of Simpson, "He was a great talent and a key figure in our World Class Programme over many years culminating in his well-deserved Olympic success. He was a huge inspiration to others, both within the British Sailing Team and across the nation."

Andrew Simpson, sailor: born Chertsey, Surrey 17 December 1976; MBE 2009; married Leah (two sons); died San Francisco Bay 9 May 2013.

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