SAILING : Australian sinking makes waves

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The Independent Online
The inquest into why John Bertrand's Australian challenger for the America's Cup became the first boat to sink in the 144-year history of the competition was raging in San Diego yesterday.

The first question demanding an answer was whether the boat, oneAustralia, should have been racing at all. Both the Australians and their New Zealand opponents had questioned whether Sunday's race should have started in conditions which were very rough and choppy. So, too, had the French, who went on to lose their mast.

The next question was how a boat in the America's Cup - the pinnacle of international yachting -can have suffered such a disaster. oneAustralia is a state-of the-art boat, worth between $3m and $4m, yet it broke into two and sunk in just 2min 15sec.

The accident happened during a race in the challenger series, the winner of which goes on to compete for the America's Cup itself in May. The Australians have already qualified for the next stage and will be permitted to use their back-up boat in the remaining races.

The speed with which the disaster developed took everyone, crew and observers, by surprise. First, the steel rod rigging which holds up the mast at the bow and the stern went slack. Then the boat started to crumple in the cockpit area. As it began to fold upwards, banana fashion, so the speed of events increased, and the 75-ft yacht and its sophisticated rig, sails and electronics quickly disappeared below the waves.

"We were sailing in about 20 knots of breeze with quite a severe lump," Bertrand said. "The boat came off a wave, or series of waves, and we heard a loud crack, like a cannon going off. The boat appeared to fold like a sheet of cardboard through the centre and we heard this sickening sound.

"It was hard to know the full significance of what was unfolding in front of us at the time. It was all happening very quickly." Bertrand's next fear was that the 110-foot mast would collapse down on top of the crew. "We told everyone to take off their boots and get the hell out of there. Half went forward, the other half to the stern. The boat was unzipping in front of our eyes."

As the accident happened there were two men below deck, including Billy Bates, who was packing a sail. "We let him know to get his ass out of there. He didn't need much encouraging," Bertrand said. Both Bertrand's support boat and the Team New Zealand support boat rushed in to rescue the 16 crew and one observer from the water.

"There was no panic," Bertrand said "The team is conditioned for ups as well as downs. You don't practise an abandon-ship but panic is not something you see. It was terrible to see a lot of foul-weather gear floating on top of the surface and a few oneAustralia hats, and nothing else."

Bertrand, who in 1983 became the first skipper to mount a successful America's Cup challenge, said he estimated the wind speeds to be in excess of 20 knots at the time of the accident, and with waves of six feet the race committee's decision to go ahead is bound to attract criticism. "We advised the race committee that conditions were unfit for the boats," said Bertrand.

However, Pat Healy, the race committee chairman, said: "Before the racing, we were looking at 14 to 16 knots, within the criterion we have agreed to sail in [20 knots]. A number of boats called and asked us to consider not to sail. In that situation you have to make a discretionary call, but as long as winds are within the agreed criteria, we should go ahead and start racing." The jury decided that the race committee had acted within the guidelines, a view endorsed by Chuck Nichols, president of the America's Cup '95 organisation.

The carbon fibre hulls of the America's Cup yachts are strong, but do not bend very much. The loads they must endure can be increased by what is known as "shock load" as a yacht crashes off a wave and into a trough. But the conditions off San Diego are generally light, so the boats are built to the minimum weight considered prudent. "We pushed the envelope in every area that we can," Bertrand said. "The loads are extremely high. It's always a constant push to make them lighter, more high-performance.

It is unclear to me exactly how the boat broke up and why."

Bertrand is keen to salvage whatever he can from the disaster, and contacted the Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating to bring whatever influence he could on the US Navy, which has a major base in San Diego. Bertrand wants to investigate the possibility of rescuing the $500,000 mast and the sails. However Russell Bowler, a leading designer, estimated that the rate at which the yacht was sinking could be up to 15mph and that the impact would lead to disintegration.

The French completed a bad 24 hours for Bertrand by successfully objecting to his request for a day off yesterday to prepare his back-up boat for their scheduled race. Harry Cudmore, the French syndicate advisor, said: "John understood that if he takes risks he may have to pay the price."

More sailing, Sporting Digest, page 35