AC72s Are On The Edge

30 Oct

Has this reinvented America's Cup pushed sailboat design past the edge of safety? You certainly get the feeling that is a real question in the aftermath of Oracle Team USA's devastating pitchpole. And when you see what the sailors think of how they have had to adapt and prepare for catastrophic capsize.

Here, for example, is what ETNZ's Rod Davis has to say about the principles underlying ETNZ's AC72 capsize procedure:

1. We may be dealing with injuries, possibly significant injuries, as well as the capsized boat.  An AC72 is 14m wide and, when a crewman falls, and someone will fall, he will have a good chance to hitting something nasty on the way down.  Wing, rigging, wheel, grinder pedestals – something hard.
2. Crew members will be separated from the boat. If there is enough wind to capsize the boat, there will be enough to blow it along on its side, faster than crew can swim.
3. Recover people and deal with injuries first, boat recovery second.
4. The plan for righting the boat is straight forward enough. Just like the 45 “righting” lines, ropes run under the forward beam and attach where the hull and beam meet, on both sides as you don’t know which tack you will be on when you roll her over.

That's not the sort of thinking, or the level of physical danger, normally associated with America's Cup racing. And that's not necessarily a bad thing–the elevated risks clearly add a NASCAR-level of suspense that edges

the staid Auld Mug into thrill sport territory. And the sailors are very highly paid, both to manage the risks and to live with them if things go wrong. But it is a new element, and new territory, for the America's Cup, made even more apparent in the aftermath of Oracle's capsize.

Davis goes on to discuss the challenges of righting a capsized AC72, and the dangers to the crew of being trapped under the trampoline if the wing snaps and the boat turns turtle. As to what ETNZ learned from Oracle's experience?

Making a head count is difficult and takes time. Clearly you need to account for everyone and count twice so there is no mistake. First you need to know who and how many people are on board (we often have extras: sailmakers, wing designers, etc)

Helmets are numbered but they are not sequential. Dean’s number is 14 and Dalt’s is 46. The boys will be scattered around, all dressed in black. It’s like counting rugby players but they are not all on the field, some are on the sidelines and in the stands. A buddy system will help but a head count will still take time.

When training we can’t take off downwind for 20 miles or there will be one chase boat on the seen. Six miles is ok as the legs for the America’s Cup are less than that.

Thankfully and miraculously there were no injuries with the Oracle capsize. To identify the injured, we use international hand signals. Hand on top of your head is “I’m OK”.  Hand up “I need help.”  Those who are OK are to swim into groups and wait there; the dry suit and life jacket means you won’t freeze or drown. Someone will pick you up.

The paramedic will assess injuries; depending on how many are hurt and how serious others are he might leave an injured man there while he attends to more urgent cases.

Serious stuff, no? And if you need a reminder why the teams are thinking so deeply about safety, then all you have to do is watch AC Discovered's recently released look into the Oracle capsize:

I wonder what Prada has planned in the event their spectacular looking "Chrome Bullet" takes a dive? That's one more AC72 headed out to the racetrack, trying to climb the incredibly steep learning curve on how to balance speed and risk with the foiling AC72.



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