A powerful sense of deja vu swept over Chris Dickson and some of his Oracle crew as their America’s Cup yacht, USA49, rolled into a sickening capsize after the keel broke off in the Hauraki Gulf on Wednesday. And Dickson—concerned that lives are in danger—is calling for a change to the provisions of the Cup protocol that prevent teams that buy used equipment from other syndicates from having access to design and engineering information related to the boats they acquire.
It was nearly a year to the day since Dickson went through exactly the same experience on Oracle’s other yacht, USA61. At that time, Dickson was just coming off an Olympic Tornado campaign and said the feeling of the big boat capsize was uncannily similar to a Tornado capsize. “I felt like, oh, oh, I have seen this before, but it shouldn’t be happening on this boat,” he said at the time. He hoped he would never suffer the experience again and said extensive research would be conducted to learn and apply the lessons.
However, it did happen again in just about exactly the same circumstances. The two Oracle yachts, which were bought from Paul Cayard’s OneAmerica syndicate after 2000, were sailing upwind side by side in about 14 knots of breeze. Dickson was helming USA49, when there was a loud bang and the yacht rolled onto its side. In what appears to be a carbon-copy repeat of the earlier capsize, the keel had snapped off at the hull. “When it happened the first time, it came as an incredible shock,” said Dickson. “This time, the team had gone through a whole range of emergency procedures. We have gone through every possible emergency scenario and worked out how to deal with it. When this happened, everybody swung into action instantly. I swear the bowman, Phil Jamieson, was halfway up the mast before it even hit the water. The recovery was smooth and efficient. The whole team did a great job of saving the boat. Nobody was hurt and nobody even got wet initially.
The crew all scrambled up onto the side and a quick headcount established that everybody was safe. Following the established procedures, the crew moved swiftly to secure the boat, with chase boats supporting the mast and pumps keeping the hull well afloat. With the wind rising steadily to nearly 40 knots and with waves crashing over the boat, the team then towed the capsized hull for seven miles into the lee of Motutapu Island, where they met up with the same crane barge and operator that had helped them a year ago. “We can’t go on meeting like this,” was the obvious greeting as they went through the exercise of righting the boat and then nursing it back to the Oracle base in the America’s Cup village. By midnight, the boat was back at the base and by dawn, the rig was out, the hull pumped dry and back in the shed and the remaining gear and sails recovered.
The day began earlier than usual with the boats off the dock at 7:30 a.m. to get as much work done as possible before the predicted change in the weather would force them back to base. The break occurred in the late morning and the wind and seas began increase dramatically shortly afterwards. “It’s very disconcerting that this has happened,” said Dickson. “It’s nearly exactly a year since the last keel broke. This is a different boat, different keel, but same scenario.” He said that following the first keel break, the Oracle team had tried to get design and engineering information about the boats, but had been prevented by the Cup protocol, which prohibits the exchange of design information from one syndicate to another.
“The matter went to the Arbitration Panel, but the answer came back as a categorical ’No,’” said Dickson. Dickson said he didn’t want to go into the rules or politics of the issue, but noted: “As the guy standing behind the wheel, I see this as a safety issue. Not many people in the world have been through one keelboat capsizing, let alone two. This is a dangerous situation. We have been lucky both times that everybody did a fantastic job of keeping the people and the boats intact, but there’s no doubt that lives are at risk in these situations.
“It is very frustrating to think that information that may have prevented this from happening actually exists, but we are not allowed access to it. Hopefully there is a sensible solution.” Dickson said USA49 would not go sailing again until a new keel was installed—by a different method. “I would expect that will take a few weeks,” he said.