SAN FRANCISCO – Olympic gold medal-winning sailor Andrew "Bart" Simpson's death during an America's Cup training run on San Francisco Bay last week was the latest and most glaring setback to befall an event that had already encountered its share of rough waters.
Now, questions are being raised about the safety of the $10 million high-tech boats that can obtain speeds of 45 mph and how Simpson's death will affect his team, Artemis Racing, and the America's Cup itself. It's unclear if Artemis will compete, as planned, now that one of its two boats has been destroyed.
From the moment billionaire Larry Ellison proposed holding the event in San Francisco after winning the trophy in 2010, America's Cup organizers ran into vocal political opposition, lawsuits and community protests over the public cost of the event to the city's treasury and environment.
"This is not the first time a bunch of starry eyed politicians have been bamboozled by a tycoon," said former city supervisor Aaron Peskin, who settled his lawsuit last year that sought to stop the event. "Usually when things get hyped that much they turn out to be too good to be true. This was too good to be true."
Up to a dozen sailing teams were expected to set up operations for months around the bay, injecting a significant boost to the local economy, but only three competitors showed up to take on the defending cup champions Oracle racing.
An accidental fire started by a welder working on America's Cup improvement caused $2.4 million in damages to a city pier in June 2012 and Team Oracle's boat capsized in October and was swept four miles out to sea where it was badly damaged by the churning waters.
Critics complain that America's Cup organizers promised too much to win the backing of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and are now delivering too little. They point to the ratcheting down of the economic forecast as proof.
When first proposed, city officials were told the event would mean 8,800 new jobs and $1.4 billion to the local economy. That has been recently revised to $780 million and 5,500 jobs. A private fundraising effort has fallen behind its initial target of raising $32 million to offset the city's expense for hosting the event. Civic leaders were promised the America's Cup wouldn't cost the city.
"I won't kid anyone that bringing a large event to San Francisco isn't without its challenges," chief event organizer Stephen Barclay said Friday at a news conference.
In an interview Saturday morning, Barclay noted that fundraisers have amassed $14 million in donations and pledges and the $14 million in tax revenue city official expect the event to generate will offset any costs to San Francisco. Barclay said that the city will still end up paying nothing while still benefiting financially from a major sporting event with 50 racing days.
"The majority of people understand that's why the city pursued the America's Cup," Barclay said.
Barclay said that Simpson's death has stunned the tight-knit sailing community.
Nonetheless, he said he has "every expectation" that the America's Cup will take place as scheduled. But Barclay said he won't commit formally to that position until an internal probe of the fatal crash is completed.
Decisions on whether to make safety changes to the boats or the race course along San Francisco's busy waterfront will also await the conclusion of the examination, which is being led by Regatta director Iain Murray, Barclay said. Murray is expected to announce the probable cause of the accident early next week.
Artemis chairman Torbjorn Tornqvist said his team will also conduct a thorough review of the accident.
"(We) will be looking at how the risks inherent to such competitive sailing can be limited in the future for the safety of the team and all competitors in the sailing community," he said.
Barclay conceded that organizers were disappointed that only three teams materialized to challenge Oracle Racing, but cited the bad economy as a reason some potential challengers stayed away.
He said that the run-up to the London Olympics last year endured massive amounts of criticism and concerns. But he said once the games started, the focus shifted almost entirely to the sporting events and the games were ultimately deemed a success.
"I have no doubt that will also be the case with the America's Cup, too," Barclay said. "A light switch will flip."