DEATH BY SAILING: Andrew Simpson and Luke Stimson

Artemis AC72 crash


I was planning next to bore you with some details of Lunacy‘s recent passage from Puerto Rico to Bermuda, but the breaking news is far more compelling. And not just to sailors it seems. In my recent post on the America’s Cup I noted that the general public only seems to follow the Cup when there are intriguing characters involved, but now, unfortunately, we’ve found something else guaranteed to pique their interest. No one seemed terribly interested in AC72s when they were just sailing fast, but now that someone’s been killed on one, all the major media have perked up their ears.

Case in point: the most detailed description I can find right now of the tragic AC72 capsize that led to the death in San Francisco yesterday of Olympic medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson is on Wired‘s website. According to them Artemis’s big cat “simply broke apart under sail, folded, then flipped.” Other reports note that conditions during the practice sail were moderate at the time, 20 knots or less, and that Simpson was trapped under the boat for several minutes.

Andrew Simpson

Andrew Simpson aboard a Star, his weapon of choice in Olympic competition

What I immediately thought of when I heard the news (on NPR radio, no less) was all the other people who have died on sailboats out there on the Left Coast over the past year. Last April we first suffered the staggering loss of five crew off Low Speed Chase in the Farallones Race, followed immediately by the deaths of all four crew aboard Aegean in the Newport Ensenada Race. More recently, this past March, there was another incident I did not remark upon, where one crew was lost off a Columbia 32, Uncontrollable Urge, when it got caught in surf during the Islands Race between Newport Harbor and San Diego. That’s now 11 fatalities over the past 13 months of West Coast racing.

And as a reminder that you needn’t be a racer to lose your life aboard a sailboat, there was another sad news item, which didn’t get played very widely, that caught my eye after I reached Bermuda aboard Lunacy. Luke Stimson, a 38-year-old Brit, was sailing doublehanded in the Pacific aboard a 38-foot boat with his pregnant fiancee, Laura Vernon, when he fell overboard last Saturday some 2,000 miles from Hawaii. She didn’t know enough about managing the boat to even try and get back to him and could only watch the strobe on his lifejacket slowly disappear. She did know how to use the sat phone and prompted the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to launch a 50-hour search that turned up nothing. She herself was airlifted off the boat by helicopter.

Luke Stimson and Jonetsu

Luke Stimson with his boat, Jonetsu, which he was sailing from Osaka, Japan, to Southampton, Great Britain, when he was lost overboard

It’s a scenario I worry about all the time, as I often go sailing with people who are relying solely on me to handle the boat.

What does all this mean? Safety, people! Sailing often seems very safe when you are doing it, and it usually is, but there is always an element of danger. Disaster can strike out of nowhere. You can’t get complacent!

As for the America’s Cup, Andrew Simpson and everyone who sails on those AC72s understands they are volatile and dangerous machines. That’s why they all wear helmets and carry little pony air bottles, just in case. (Maybe now they’ll be wearing full-on scuba gear instead.) Simpson’s death, of course, does raise the question of whether AC72s are in fact too dangerous to race on. Sadly, if they are and we lose more lives, you can bet the public at large will keep paying attention to this summer’s Cup competition.

(Photo up top is by Noah Berger)

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3 Responses
  1. Jesse

    The discussion is at least starting that the ultramodern racing boats are dangerously under-built for speed and not safety. Whether it’s boats breaking up in 20 knots of wind shortly after the start in a Round The World race, or this terrible accident causing loss of life in similarly mild conditions, this drive

  2. Steve

    I found your website and articles quite by accident and they are very interesting to say the least. As science and materials progress some deaths will occur and changes will be made. Look at the field of space, air travel and automobiles. They have all increased in safety indirectly caused by accidents and death. A plane can be built perfectly safe but it will never fly. Nascar cars can easily exceed 240 mph but can become airborn and dangerous. It is a shame about losing Stimson but no accident is caused by just one mistake but by a chain of mistakes and you have reminded us to be be vigilant and thoughtful when going out to sea. Mother nature can exact a harsh payment if we are not careful. Please keep writing these excellent articles.

  3. Charlie

    @Steve: Very glad you found the site! Hope you stop by often. I think we’ve reached the point with sailing technology (this also addresses Jesse’s comment below) where we may have to limit the technology in order to conduct competitions that are successful, meaningful, and safe. This has happened in Formula 1 car racing, and likewise in the current AC competition and in events like the Vendee Globe and Volvo Race we now seem to have reached the edge of the envelope. The fastest boats are too fragile to be safe, or to even survive a race. charlie

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