Sunday 26 May 2013

America's Cup : Making it safe for the summer

Image copyright Guilain Grenier/ACEA

by Stephen Barclay, CEO, America's Cup Event Authority

In sport, when things go wrong, people sometimes get injured or worse. Those sports that involve leading edge technology and athletes competing at the highest level tend to magnify the consequences when things go wrong. F1, NASCAR, Indycar, Kite Surfing, Moto GP, X Games are some examples… And sailing is another.

A number of these sports have dealt with tragedy by thoroughly reviewing their systems and processes, in particular those surrounding the personal safety of the participants.

For example, following the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, a number of measures were introduced, such as better cockpit protection for the drivers. Grooved tires were introduced in 1998 instead of racing slick tires to reduce cornering speed. Safety measures continued to be introduced into the 21st century, with a number of circuits having their configuration changed to improve driver safety. It is illustrative that no driver has suffered a fatal crash since Senna in 1994, making this the longest period in F1 history without a driver fatality.

On Wednesday, the America’s Cup Regatta Director, Iain Murray, delivered 37 recommendations to improve the safety of the AC72s on San Francisco Bay. The recommendations were divided into four sections; the AC72 Yacht, Personal Equipment, Additional Support Equipment and Race Management. The America’s Cup Event Authority (ACEA) and America’s Cup Race Management (ACRM) added these recommendations in their entirety to an amended Marine Event Permit application and submitted it to the Coast Guard for its consideration. If approved, the safety recommendations will become ‘requirements’ to participate in the AC72 events this summer.

Emirates Team New Zealand AC72. Image copyright ACEA/Gilles Martin-Raget

The new AC72 safety recommendations aim to reduce the potential for capsize while recognizing that capsizes may still occur. The proposals therefore also address how the teams improve the personal safety of the sailors during and after a capsize. Much as crashes still occur in F1 but safety measures have resulted in no loss of driver life, our new safety requirements seek to do the same.

As the Event Authority, we are now focused on tuning-up our event plans to embrace the new safety requirements. To allow for increased AC72 maintenance, the schedule will be tweaked, cutting the number of rounds from seven to five. This change is expected to effect only a very small number of race days, primarily in July.

Possibly the biggest impact will be the reduced wind limits. Our data shows that in July, winds could be above our new limit as much as 30% of the time. But by bringing the race time forward by an hour, for example, we could dramatically reduce the likelihood of the wind being above the limit. So we are currently looking into this to achieve the goal of reliable start times. The good news is that the winds get a little lighter in August and then lighter again in September, to the point where there is a low probability of races in September being impacted by the new wind limits.

Artemis Racing AC72. Image copyright Sander van der Borch/Artemis Racing

The work undertaken by the expert America’s Cup AC72 Safety Review Committee, the recommendations of the Regatta Director, the revised Marine Event Permit application incorporating the recommendations, and the manner in which the teams have responded to these changes suggests we have learned from the recent AC72 capsizes and the tragedy of losing Artemis Racing’s double Olympic medalist Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson.

Safety was always the priority. Improving it is a constant quest and there is always more work to be done, but it is good to be able to move forward knowing we are all collectively focused on doing everything we possibly can so that any future incident doesn’t result in the loss of another great sailor’s life.

America's Cup