Competitors in this year's America's Cup may wear a revolutionary body armour and stronger helmets to protect them from the sort of accident that killed British sailor Andrew "Bart" Simpson.
The proposal forms part of a new safety blueprint being put forward by Patrizio Bertelli, boss of the luxury goods house Prada, which is backing the Italian challenger Luna Rossa. Under the plan, race rules which lay down wind strength limits would also be changed. There would also be an enhanced plan for emergencies, including a water ambulance close to the race track, a helicopter standing by and medics on support boats with divers on hand to aid any rescue.
The bodysuits would inevitably be the most eye-catching innovation. There are rumours that Simpson's helmet suffered significant damage in the accident which led to him being trapped under a 72-foot wing-powered catamaran when the Swedish challenger, Artemis, flipped over while training on San Francisco Bay.
The suits would have to be made from a material which allows freedom of movement around the often violently moving platform of a boat which is over 40 feet wide. The suits would have to protect much more than the upper body, as in American football armour. With the race preliminaries starting in July, there is very little design, testing and production time.
Amending the race rules is an easier proposition. Present rules call for a wind limit of 25 knots during the Louis Vuitton Cup elimination races. This rises to 28 knots in the LVC final and then up to 33 knots in the best-of-17 cup matches which start on 7 September. Bertelli wants the limit to be reduced to 20 knots for the whole of the LVC and 25 knots for the cup match, though why it is safe to increase the limit for such a demanding schedule – 17 races in 14 days – is unclear.
The challengers had to design, build and test boats to perform in the conditions laid down by the people who drew up the protocol, the American defender. Different specifications would have led to different design and build specifications. The Kiwis will not be happy.
"There have always been ups and downs in the America's Cup," says Bertelli, who noted the break-up of an Australian boat off San Diego and the dismasting of Team New Zealand when defending off Auckland. "But what has happened is much more serious than in the past."
Bertelli is apprehensive that a review committee led by the boss of America's Cup Race Management, Iain Murray, can only make recommendations and has no power to impose changes to the protocol that governs the whole event or to the class rules which govern the boats.
"It is not clear to us what will happen," said Bertelli, who has flown to California to take part in the review undertaken by his own team. He added that his team trusted its own boat, which was interpreted by the America's Cup Event Authority as a the vote of confidence in the America's Cup continuing as planned.
But Bertelli's parting shot made it clear that there are other things to be settled before giving an unequivocal go-ahead to his team. "We will respect the protocol and class rule as they have been approved. I am in favour of discussing the class rule with the other teams, but we will not accept any impositions."
The Artemis team has yet to indicate its clear intention to continue. The boat that broke up cannot be sailed and its repair may be hampered if reports are true that the second boat, the one it intended to campaign in, was damaged in transit from Sweden and will require repairs.
On Saturday morning, Luna Rossa ignored requests from the accident review committee and took to San Francisco Bay for a training session in its 72-foot trimaran, skipper Max Sirena said: “The really significant aspect was psychological: it was important for the crew to resume sailing on the AC72 and to get back into its normal training mode to prepare for the upcoming races. In the next few days we will continue with our training and development program as scheduled.”
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