Exclusive: A year on, Sir Ben Ainslie and Iain Percy on dealing with death of 'Bart'

A year after Andrew Simpson drowned, the sailors tell Ian Stafford about the pain of dealing with their friend's death and how opening a sailing centre in Weymouth is helping his name live on

Ian Stafford
Thursday 08 May 2014 00:00

One has flown in from California, the other from China, united in friendship and grief, and as determined as they have been in the pursuit of gold to ensure that Friday plays another part in guaranteeing that their best friend's name – and impact – lives on.

Sir Ben Ainslie arrived Wednesday from racing in the Extreme Series in Qingdao, the 2008 Olympic venue where he won the third of his magnificent four Olympic gold medals. Iain Percy, a double Olympic champion, arrives Friday morning from the San Francisco base where he leads Team Artemis in the pursuit of America's Cup glory.

Both are home for one reason: to be in Weymouth for the opening of the Andrew Simpson Sailing Centre at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy. It is the latest stage in the extraordinary rise of the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation borne out of the universal love from their sport following the tragic drowning of "Bart" Simpson on 9 May 2013 in San Francisco Bay when Artemis capsized on a training run. He was 36.

The new centre – officially opened on Friday in the company of Ainslie, Percy, other key members of the British sailing community and, perhaps most poignantly of all, Simpson's widow, Leah – is designed to provide the chance for children of all ages and backgrounds to sample not just the sport of sailing, but opportunities to work in the sailing industry.

"It would have been almost the perfect day for Bart," Ainslie explains. "It meant so much to him to provide the chance for all to sail or gain employment in the business. Ridding the sport of any remaining elitist perceptions was a huge goal for him, and he'd devote much of his time to helping others, advising anyone who asked. I just wish he was here to see it. I'd give anything for that."

The Foundation has raised more than £500,000 so far and, apart from Friday's event, will also stage "Bart's Bash" on 21 September, a synchronised series of races worldwide designed to annually encourage as many people as possible to get out on to the water, and to keep the memory of Simpson burning brightly. It hopes to break the world record as the race with the most participants.

These are projects that Ainslie, Percy, Leah Simpson and others have thrown themselves into but Percy, who won his second Olympic gold in the Star Class at Qingdao with Simpson alongside him before claiming silver as a pair in Weymouth in 2012, admits that such activities – and especially Friday's opening on the first anniversary of his friend's death – have also helped him to deal with the trauma of Simpson's death.

"Friday will serve as a bit of a defence mechanism for us all," Percy admits. "I find it much easier to work in Bart's name than to concentrate on losing him. He was my best mate, and there will be moments of great sadness on Friday mixed with pride for the impact that he has made and a celebration of his life.

"Whenever I was struggling with anything personal or professional, I'd turn to Bart. So did everyone else for that matter. The best person to talk to right now about all this would be Bart. As irrational as it sounds, I'm still expecting him to walk through my door at any time. I imagine it so strongly, it feels completely real. But for the last year I've had to rely on what Bart would say, rather than what he is. And, for sure, he'd be telling me to stop moping and get on with life."

Ainslie concurs. "That would be Bart. He wouldn't have much time for us feeling sorry for ourselves. He'd tell us life was for living. And he'd be overjoyed by the Foundation and by the opening of the sailing club – his sailing club – on Friday.

"It doesn't change the fact, as hard as I'll try, that Friday will be tough. Very tough. I think we'll all be very conscious that at some point in the day we'll need each other. I think the full range of emotions will be felt.

Ainslie adds: "Obviously mine and Iain's main concern will be for Leah and the kids [Freddie, three, and one-year-old Hamish] although Leah has been remarkable in the way she's handled everything. Iain says that we should be rocks for her but, if anything, it's been the other way round and he's right. Leah's been an inspiration to us all."

A year ago Friday, Percy and Simpson set out on to the murky waters of San Francisco Bay for another day's training in pursuit of the ultimate goal in sailing, the America's Cup.

In winds of around 18 knots (23mph) their £5m catamaran Artemis attempted a 180-degree turn from upwind to downwind, heading away from the Golden Gate Bridge and towards Berkeley. The fronts of the hulls dug into the water and the boat flipped over, partially broke up and capsized.

An unclipped Simpson, who had been standing a few feet away from Percy, was missing for almost 15 minutes and when he was finally discovered and pulled from the wreckage below the surface, it was already too late.

Percy delivered an emotional eulogy at Simpson's funeral at Sherborne Abbey and served, together with Ainslie and fellow Olympic gold medallist Paul Goodison, as pallbearers. He positioned a photo of his friend at the lectern and now, back home, he has another picture of the two of them sailing.

"It brings back good memories," he says. "We're on Artemis, we're fired up, we're racing and Bart's in his element. The picture was only taken a week or two before…"

Percy's voice trails off for a few seconds. "If I'm honest I'm finding it hardest now. At first I threw myself into the team, into Leah and the kids and into preserving Bart's legacy through the Foundation.

"But it's been comparatively quieter in the last few weeks and that's where the numbness has set in. It feels like a permanent hole. I have to look out at San Francisco Bay every day of my working life with Artemis. There's a particular part of the Bay I really don't like at all. It brings back horrific memories.

"I miss him most when I'm racing. I want to turn round to him all the time and seek his advice or reassurance. Of course, I can't. I know that it will affect me for the rest of my life."

Ainslie contemplated packing in sailing, even though one of Britain's greatest ever Olympians had begun the pursuit to win the America's Cup in a British boat that may yet happen in 2017. Indeed, a couple of months after the tragedy, Ainslie joined Oracle, 8-1 down to Team New Zealand, and helped the American boat to a memorable 9-8 America's Cup victory.

"It was an obvious first reaction, I guess," Ainslie accepts. "What happened to Bart made you think about what life is really all about. It was a huge wake-up call. But he would have been furious with me if I'd stopped and so instead I aim to do everything I can for him and for British sailing.

"Life will never be the same again without him but if I were to bring the America's Cup home, the first glass raised will be to a great sailor, and to an even greater human being."

For more information go to: www.andrewsimpsonsailing.org

Bart's death was sailing's 'Ayrton Senna moment'

The winner of last summer's dramatic America's Cup has revealed how the fiercely secretive boat crews competing for the next America's Cup are working together to improve the safety of the fast and powerful catamarans following the death of Andrew Simpson a year ago.

James Spithill, who – with significant aid from Sir Ben Ainslie – came back from 8-1 down to beat Team New Zealand 9-8 in San Francisco Bay last September, has likened the tragic drowning of Simpson to sailing's "Ayrton Senna moment", a particularly poignant and relevant association in the week marking the 20th anniversary of the three-time Formula One world champion's death in San Marino.

"Nobody has died in Formula One since Senna's accident and we're all hoping there will never be a repeat of what happened to Bart again in the America's Cup or any other races in our sport," the two-time America's Cup winner said.

"Of course, it's never quite as simple as that. Sailing can be unpredictable in that, unlike in Formula One, you have to deal with one area out of your control – the elements. The wind and the sea will always make our sport unpredictable but for the first time ever we're not just concentrating on speed any more, but safety as well.

"What happened to Bart really was our own Ayrton Senna moment. To see such a universally loved friend and competitor lose his life in the pursuit of speed and competition on the same waters that we would subsequently fight for the America's Cup forced us all to stop and think. Such a tragedy has to be a turning point for us all."

In the wake of Simpson's death the America's Cup and Louis Vuitton Challenger teams – who are all waiting for the imminent announcement of the protocols for the next America's Cup, which is almost certain to be staged in 2017 in the defending country of the United States – have been working together like never before.

"Technology overtook safety," the Australian added. "Speed was what we all chased. Our rivalries traditionally run deep. It's the same as in Formula One. We won't give each other an inch-worth of knowledge. It's always been highly protective.

"A lot of that has now changed. Designers and engineers across the board have been sharing information and knowledge with each other in the pursuit of safety.

"We're not just talking about the design of the boats. We're also exploring how better to survive when capsizing, the upgrading of helmets and life vests and improving impact on water.

"Rivalries have been put to one side and much of this has been led by the athletes who were all shaken by Bart's death. The drive to make sure it doesn't happen again is the least we can do to honour his name and leave a legacy. We all feel it when you lose one of your own."

As for the prospect of facing former team-mate Ainslie as a challenger in 2017, Spithill is excited. "We're good mates who share a huge degree of respect for each other. What happened last year in the America's Cup will be something we can share for the rest of our lives.

"We're both very competitive animals. We'll go out to smash each other if Ben's boat gets through the Challenger series – and that won't be easy – but when it's over we'll also have a beer together. There's no question I'd love to meet Ben in the America's Cup. To beat him would be some achievement."

Ian Stafford

James Spithill was talking on behalf of Laureus. For more information visit: www.laureus.com

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