Patrizio Bertelli, the Italian billionaire who bankrolls the Luna Rossa Challenge America’s Cup team, is in the Bay Area to back up his call for better safety measures in the competition.

Bertelli’s visit follows the death last week of Andrew “Bart” Simpson, a British crewman on Sweden’s Artemis Racing catamaran. Simpson was trapped under the craft after it nosedived and broke up near Treasure Island. San Francisco police, the U.S. Coast Guard, and a panel appointed by America’s Cup organizers are investigating the accident. The incident has sparked an international debate about whether the giant 72-foot catamarans planned for the America’s Cup competition this summer are too dangerous to race.

(NPR’s Richard Gonzales reported on the issues surrounding the so-called AC72s on Friday’s “All Things Considered”:)

Bertelli, who runs Italy’s Prada fashion empire, said Friday in a press conference at the Luna Rossa base in Alameda that he wants organizers to agree to cancel races when winds exceed 25 knots—about 28 mph. Current rules would allow racing with winds of 33 knots—about 38 mph—during the final round in September. Bertelli also called for improved safety equipment for the AC72 crews, including body armor and stronger helmets for crewmen.

“We want to increase the safety of the sailors and look at any technology and tools to make us safer,” Bertelli said through an interpreter Friday at the team’s base in Alameda.

Flanked by his entire 50-person team, Bertelli also said his team is comfortable sailing its AC72 and intends to continue to do so. “In order for the boat to be safe, sailors need to feel safe,” he said. “Our sailors have told me they trust the boat and can sail on it.”

America’s Cup organizers later issued a statement welcoming Bertelli’s “vote of confidence,” but suggesting that Luna Rossa hold off on sailing until at least next Thursday, when the committee reviewing the Artemis accident may make new safety recommendations.

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As Bertelli expressed support for tweaking safety rules and continuing in the 72-foot America’s Cup catamarans—which are capable of running on hydrofoils at speeds topping 40 mph—one media voice in the race’s host city suggested a more drastic change in the planned competition.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius took up a suggestion made by some in the sailing community that the race would be safer with the scaled-down 45-foot catamarans used in last year’s America’s Cup World Series races in San Francisco and several other cities.

Nevius acknowledged the race will happen one way or the other—too much time, effort, and money has gone into the thing to have it canceled. But he went on:

The 72-foot catamarans are too much, too big, too powerful. Most of all, they are too dangerous. We haven’t fired a starting gun yet and two of the seven boats have crashed in spectacular, boat-breaking fashion. A crew member has died.

Someone needs to make a hard choice and say the race will go back to the 45-foot catamarans that raced last summer. There would still be hull-raising action, a stunning bay background, and excellent spectator and television viewing.

And it would be far safer.

While this week’s upbeat news conference was proceeding at the podium with the message that the race goes on regardless, it was impossible not to see that the America’s Cup support staff and members of the teams looked absolutely shattered after the death of Andrew “Bart” Simpson. Event organizers should pick up on that and use it to make changes instead of ignoring it.

Not doing so could make the entire enterprise collapse on its own. …

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And if you want a little more direct taste of why the AC72s are both exciting and controversial, here’s something to watch. It’s an AC72 training run by Team Oracle–the Larry Ellison-led group that’s defending the Cup and is responsible for the big catamaran format of this year’s racing. The imagery is thrilling, and you can’t help but share the crew’s awe that a boat can do what this one does. Take note of the comment from crewman Shannon Falcone at 2:45 in the video: “You’ve got a boat, you know, that’s over seven ton on what looks like a relatively small surface, screaming at over 40 knots [more than 46 mph]. And you’re just saying, ‘Hope that thing holds’ … ’cause it could be kind of catastrophic if it didn’t.”

Author

Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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