Safety fears raised ahead of next America's Cup


The flying machines which are the weapon of choice for the next America’s Cup, one of the sporting world’s more quirky events, are throwing up a mass of problems for sailors learning to control the new beasts and, compounded by rules imposed by the American defender, raising fears for the safety of the people racing them.

Millions of dollars are being thrown at winning, or retaining, what claims to be the oldest international trophy in international sport. Its origins go back to 1851 and a race around the Isle of Wight. It is unlikely to cost the teams, Oracle Team USA, Emirates Team New Zealand, Italy’s Luna Rossa, Sweden’s Artemis, and, though it has yet to confirm it has the money, Team Korea, less than half a billion dollars between them. Add to that the whole cost of staging and televising the event.

Until the legally enforced Cup 33 went the way of the San Francisco-based Oracle Racing when they beat the Swiss holder Alinghi in 2010 in giant multihulls, the America’s Cup has always been contested in monohulls.

Cup 34 will be staged in 72-foot, wing-powered catamarans, starting with the Louis Vuitton Cup eliminator in July next year, with the winner squaring up against Oracle in September. But one of the rules imposed by Oracle was that only 30 days of testing was allowed in the new boats until 31 January next year.

In theory this was to reduce costs, though spending is rampant in other areas. One of the many changes in the protocol format along the way was to increase the size of the wing and so make available more power than would ever normally be usable. Oracle boss Russell Coutts has since quietly acknowledged that 52-footers would have been sufficient.

The race track on San Francisco Bay is close to the shore and restricted. But, as one insurance expert told The Independent: “You could hardly find a better track for a television spectacular and you could hardly find a worse track if California lawyers ever have the chance to sink their teeth into some injury compensation claims.”

Unlike in aviation, there is a very limited database about the hydrofoils on which these boats will sit, at 40-plus knots. Much of what there is concerns straight line boats seeking speed records, not boats which have to turn corners and race at close quarters.

One man faced with the “challenge” of delivering one of these boats with a combination of a speed edge and a reasonable expectation of reliability is Juan Kouyoumdjian, known always as Juan K, the Argentinian design chief of the Artemis syndicate, backed by the oil billionaire Torbjorn Tornqvist.

“We could use every hour and every bit of daylight and it still would not be enough,” says Juan K. But, curiously, he adds the view that changing the rules and abandoning the restrictions would not necessarily be agreed by the challengers. “It would benefit Oracle most due to their two-boat testing and now even TNZ and LR since the jury allowed them to observe and exchange design and performance information,” he says.

Words which everyone hopes will not be true prophetically come from the man who will run the races, the Australian Iain Murray. “There are going to be injuries,” he said at the start of the 2011-12 season. Now the crews wear padding and crash helmets in case, as has happened, they are catapulted through carbon fibre wings which, as they break, can shatter into deadly shards.

Meanwhile, Juan K’s team is working flat out having seen a trial wing crumple and knowing that the clock is ticking ever more loudly. The Kiwis, whom Juan K sees as current favourites, have looked impressive on their home waters and they will be joined soon by the Italians, backed by Patrizio Bertelli and his luxury goods house, Prada.

The sanction of their co-operative deal by an international jury is described by Juan K as “a bloody ridiculous decision”, but, now, Artemis could train alongside Oracle in San Francisco entirely legally. Scheming and bickering has been part of this super-rich confrontation for 161 years. It will not stop now. Even the threat to life and limb is not new, just the level.