Sailing accident after serious mistake

A wrong decision leads to the spectacular capsizing of the Americans during the America`s Cup qualification. The race organizers initially declare an emergency, but in the end the sinking boat still reaches the harbor.

Finally, everything seemed clear: three defeats in a row, but then, with a freshening wind, the lead for the first time and over a distance of a good half kilometer. Actually, Dean Barker, helmsman of the American boat in the Prada Cup ahead of New Zealand, only had to bring the victory in the sixth elimination race of the challengers for the America’s Cup over the finish line. But then, at the last windward mark, an overheard warning call, a mistake, a technical problem – all in succession in a matter of seconds. Patriot, the American boat, shot meters into the air, turned far to leeward over her hydrofoil with a tight mainsail, and capsized over her port side.

The eleven crew members survived the unexpected high-speed jump and capsize uninjured. The boat was quickly righted. While being towed into port, however, it began to sink. The race organizers declared an emergency in Auckland that evening, and the Coast Guard and competitors’ supporters rushed to help. The fact that the Italians of Luna Rossa, previously far behind, took an unchallenged victory after the American competitor had finished, only counted for the results table. Undefeated at the top with four wins after the first weekend of the challengers’ elimination races is the British team led by the “King of Sailing,” Sir Ben Ainslie. The defenders of the Cup, Team New Zealand, should have learned a lot from following the races of its competitors.

Accident after difficult maneuver

Sunday turned out to be the first day of truth for the AC75 Copper, still largely untested in racing conditions. Fresh, gusty wind created very different conditions than the light wind until Saturday. The British with their completely revised boat proved their unexpected superiority even in this weather. In the first of Sunday’s two races, they beat Luna Rossa on the regatta course despite a wasted start. The second race, Italians versus Americans, the men could watch relaxed from the shore. It was to be worth it.

After losing three match races, the American team entered with a huge burden. Both the Italians and the Americans had technical problems: The Italians’ navigation did not work, and they cut the boundary of the regatta course several times. Also, the communication system on board the Americans apparently jammed several times. This could be compensated for, but greater challenges were to follow: As Patriot chased full speed downwind toward the last windward mark, British Olympic champion Paul Goodison on board was still warning of a “difficult maneuver” that Barker had just announced – which should actually discourage the helmsman of a boat that is nearly half a kilometer in the lead on the last leg before the finish.

Barker, however, pulled it off as if he were drunk on the first victory that was within his grasp. He tacked at the windward buoy right into a gust that looked like at least 20 knots, only to drop sharply immediately afterward at full speed of nearly 45 knots (83 kilometers per hour). But the backstay leading from the hull up into the mast remained fixed, preventing the mainsail from opening – colloquially, Barker and his men couldn’t lift their foot off the throttle. Patriot’s fate was sealed. The New Zealand Legionnaire was still standing on the new leeward side of his yacht as he maneuvered as helmsman and had no chance to see the squall. Two seconds later, disaster struck.

For helmsman Dean Barker it must have been a déjà vue in his home waters. He had beaten Luna Rossa in the final of the challengers in 2007 and again in 2013 with Team New Zealand. But in 2003, he lost the Cup off Auckland to the Swiss team Alinghi. At that time, the New Zealand yacht was beaten full in heavy weather and took on up to five tons of water – a national disgrace.

The images from 17 years ago now recall Patriot’s near sinking. Barely kept afloat by floats, she reached the saving port in Auckland in the evening under tow. Over the next four days, the Americans will now have to work around the clock to get their boat ready for the elimination regattas next Friday.

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