Disaster at Sea

March 11, 1995

Even weekend sailors realize they can sometimes push the stresses on themselves, their crews and their boats too far. Racing sailors know they are at risk much of the time. Catastrophic failures like the one that destroyed an Australian boat last Sunday are rare in the America's Cup. Challenging as the competition is, it usually limits equipment failures to torn sails, broken winches and a lost spar -- not a split hull that sank in minutes.

Fortunately, no one was injured in the sudden loss of oneAustralia. But it's shocking for a $3 million yacht to sink that way, especially in winds that would have most Chesapeake Bay sailors reefing their sails but not fearing for their safety. A good bay thunderstorm kicks up twice as much wind, though not as much wave action.

Part of the explanation lies in the fact that America's Cup contestants are specially designed boats, built for the sole purpose of winning that race. There isn't an ounce of extra weight anywhere. While the external design of the boats must meet stringent regulations, what's inside in the way of framing and bulkheads is left to each designer. For the usually calm waters off San Diego, the emphasis was on lightness. Just how vulnerable those boats are when the winds kick up was evidenced in the fact that on the same day another competitor lost a mast and two others raced without a full head of sail.

Winds of 15 to 20 knots cause far more wave action on the ocean than in the confined bay. That factor, combined with severe stresses the wind causes on a sailboat's rigging under the best of circumstances, appears the likely cause of the sinking. A sailboat stays upright by the countervailing forces of the wind pushing the sails in one direction while the tons of lead in its keel pull in the opposite direction. If one or the other gives way -- an expensive racer lost its keel in a Fastnet race some years ago -- it can be disastrous.

If there's a lesson in the mishap for the sailing community, it's not new: Train and equip for the worst possibility, not the bare minimum that will just get by. Sailors who do come home dry.

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