At the end of October 2012, after the Oracle Racing's disaster, I sent the following letter to the editors of several sailing magazines and forums. Those of the Sailing Anarchy and Scuttlebutt were brave enough to publish it, provoking angry responses by some Anarchists.
Here it goes:
"I've read and watched recent stories about the last AC72 monster cat capsize.
I've been following the America's Cup races for the last 20 years as well, and cannot recall a single accident of this type.
By definition, multihulls are much more stable vessels than monohulls - aren't they?
Yet, monohulls, though slower, do not capsize to this 'epidemiological' extent, and do not suffer in such material damage terms. Alarmingly, the AC boats capsizing has become notorious, but nobody has ever questioned the issue.
Even the 'Capsize club' has been established, with membership proudly offered to most of the AC45 teams. Even formidable Russel Coutts pierced the wing with his head first!
What's going on? Where are the designers' comments? Where did the 'investigative journalism' disappear?
I'll give you a clue: the rigid wingsails are too heavy. Naturally, rigid things are supposed to have certain weight, and in this case it is a bit over the limit. Can AC wingsails be lighter? No, they can't - if they are to be solid. Why they must be solid? Because, by today's definition, wingsails are of solid, rigid, fixed, hard nature. Only jibs, genoas, gennakers and spinnakers can be soft.
Why this is so? Nobody knows ... except some weird minds.
But if the AC wingsails were lighter - why not soft? - there would be no capsizes, risking lives and million dollar damages!
Are there soft wingsails? Of course there are. Because rigid wingsails are basically useless for any other sailing purpose except those short elite AC races, many people brainstormed the idea of having a sail shaped and performing like a wing, yet having features of conventional cloth sails - weight, price, ease of manufacturing and handling.
And I am just one of them.
On the other end are strong, well positioned guys, who adopted the old idea of a flapping solid wing, a concept limited by 2D thinking, lacking imagination and inventiveness.
This sick brainchild survived decades, protected by vested interests, stubbornness, closed mindedness, vanity...regardless of price somebody might pay for its apparent deficiencies.
Do you think something is going to change if an AC crew member dies in a future capsize, which is inevitable and pending?
No, nothing will change. But remember what I've just told you."
And it happened on May 9, 2013. A top sailor has died, leaving his family, friends and community devastated. We all know there are some risks involved in sailing, but those risks must be recognized and diligently reduced to minimum.
The issue of AC cats easy capsizing is as old as the boats themselves, but nobody has ever 'recognized the risks' hidden in the Rule 10.12, and challenged it:
The weight of the wing in wing measurement condition shall be not less than 1325 kg, and the center of gravity shall be not less than 17.000 m above the wing base plane.
(Interestingly, the minimum CG height in AC72 Class Rule version 1.0 was set at 15.25m, and later, in version 1.1, increased to 17m. Were the rule makers providing more room for heavier wings, instead of minimizing the risk of capsize? What led them to arrive at these exact figures? Fine calculation, emulation, comparative analysis ... or actual measurement of a finished stupid wing taken for granted?)
The rig's weight and the CG height are among the most crucial parameters in sailing, and the basic principles behind them are taught at physics courses in elementary schools. Higher the values, lower the stability, right? Have the AC organizers, designers and rule makers skipped these lessons? How else could this insane, dangerous limiting from below be explained?
From an interview with Paul Cayard in November 2011, we can see that Artemis was concerned with the weight aloft from the beginning:
"But when you scale up to a wing 130 feet tall, how do you control the beast? The first Artemis wing is under construction in a special facility in Valencia, Spain, Cayard says, and to control the moving parts in that wing, “We have 38 hydraulic cylinders. We want to avoid running hydraulic piping to each of them, because that would be heavy, so we have electrovalves embedded in the wing to actuate the hydraulics. But if you had two wires, positive and negative, running to each electrovalve, your wing would look like a PG&E substation, and that’s heavy too, so we use a CAN-bus [controlled area network] with far fewer wires. Still, it’s incredibly complex."
Is anybody out there curious to know the secret of the final Artemis wing's weight?
The basic slotted rigid wing type was developed decades ago for the Little America's Cup (nowdays known as C-Class), and through several generations of Patient Ladies evolved into the version still in use. It was fairly light, say 0.5 lbs per sq ft, but by increasing its area almost tenfold for its big brother, the AC wing's weight increased progressively, so its specific weight jumped from less than 2.5 kg per m2 to at least 5,2 kg per m2!
Moreover, its slotted section is highly imperfect, something impossible to find on any aircraft, particularly gliders whose model wings should be followed.
Consequently and not surprisingly at all, the AC72s have been named "wild untamed beasts".
The AC rule was written with fairly tight constraints, intended to limit any substantial development by the challengers. Not exactly one-design, but pretty close to it, letting the design teams figure out small differences only. Ironically, instead of limiting spendings, the whole project wasted millions in damages - and a human life. Then in order to save it, they limited the only other thing left - the allowed wind speed.
Who to blame for this total fiasco - Oracle, who, as the America's Cup holder, sets the ground rules for the competition, Artemis that further 'improved' the wing, or all challengers who agreed to the rules?
In an interview for NY Times from 9.7.2013, Loïck Peyron commented on the tragic accident two months earlier: “The danger was known in this case,” Peyron said. “We’ve already seen one capsizing a few months ago, and we know these boats are not very stable because the wing sails are too big. The pity is that with smaller wings, they could be safer and faster.”
What are you talking about, Loïck? Do we know something the rest of the sailing world does not?
Comparing AC72 to AC45 in November 2012, Loïck Peyron said: “They don’t have that much in common. Proportionally, the AC72s are much more unstable ... everything is that much heavier, including the wing, of course and the centre of gravity is not that well placed, as it is higher up. On top of that, there is a lot of inertia… And of course, you can’t take in a reef…”
Unfortunately, this great sailor's expertise couldn't save another great sailors's life.
Could it prevent future losses?
The Rule 10.12 must be revised, the issue rectified at its root and not by introducing 'buoyancy aids, body armor, crew locator devices, hands-free breathing apparatus and high visibility helmets', and the rule makers held responsible. If a member of my family died in such a stupid accident, rest assured the case would end up at the court.
It can often be heard that AC72 boats belong to the space age and technology. In a way, this is true - but space ships designed by the AC experts would definitely fall apart a couple seconds after launching.
The America's Cup is the world's heritage, not a private property. This way the organizers have already spoiled the event, and are jeopardizing its future.
Finally, where is the sailing in general heading now? Over the past three years sailors have realized that wingsails offer much more than inefficient thin sails still proudly produced by the best sail makers in the world. Is there anything in between clumsy hard wingsails and practical but inefficient thin sails?