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Australian Boat Sinks, but Crew Is Saved : America's Cup: Bertrand's accident is a first in 144 years.

March 06, 1995|RICH ROBERTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Skipper John Bertrand said he heard a loud crack that sounded like a cannon going off.

He thought the mast had broken, but the boat began to fold like a sheet of cardboard in the center. Helmsman Rod Davis said, "I think we're gonna sink."

Davis looked at designer Iain Murray, who was minding the running backstays, to confirm his assessment of the situation.

Murray said, "Yes, we're gonna sink."

So went the death throes of oneAustralia, which, battered by strong winds, heavy seas and rain, sank in 2 1/2 minutes in 500 feet of water during its America's Cup race against Team New Zealand on Sunday.

The 17 crew members of the 80-foot, carbon-fiber craft were quickly picked up by chase boats--drenched, stunned and disappointed but otherwise unharmed.

It was the first boat lost in the 144 years of America's Cup competition and the most destructive day ever in the event. Winds were blowing up to 20 knots--uncommon for the venue off Point Loma--with seven-foot seas and a sharp chop that punished all of the fragile boats, which are built close to safety limits for maximum speed.

The top of France 3's mast broke away while the French were leading Spain's Rioja de Espana. Two crewmen went overboard but also were collected by a chase boat.

On the defenders' course, soon after the start against the all-women crew's new Mighty Mary, Stars & Stripes crewman Ralf Steitz was thrown wildly around the boat while up the 110-foot mast, helping to drop the mainsail that had become dislodged from its track.

Bowman Greg Prussia was hoisted aloft to assist Steitz, who complained only of being dizzy.

Stars & Stripes continued its pursuit using only a headsail, but dropped out halfway through the 18.55-mile race. Later, Mighty Mary's hull cracked, but it finished after dropped its mainsail.

The only real race was Sydney 95's victory over Nippon by 1 minute 22 seconds.

Some of the competitors thought conditions were too rough at the outset. OneAustralia, Team New Zealand and France 3 all contacted race committee chairman Pat Healy by radio to say so.

Bertrand said, "These are the maximum conditions you would expect to sail these boats in."

Healy said later he decided to go ahead because the wind was within the 20-knot limit everyone had agreed upon weeks ago.

"As long as the winds were within the criteria we agreed to beforehand and only three had called, the only way to give everybody an equal chance to race was to go ahead," Healy said.

Bertrand said he would ask to postpone oneAustralia's race against France 3 today to give his team more time to prepare its backup boat, which was used in the first two round-robins of the challenger trials. But Harold Cudmore, coach and adviser for the French, indicated they would not agree.

Bertrand said when it became apparent the boat would sink, his concern was for crew members. He ordered them to remove their rubber sea boots, which would inhibit swimming, and they were diving off the boat as it went down.

Most at risk were Billy Bates and Don McCracken, who were below decks handling sails. "Billy thought the (mast) had come down and just kept packing sails," Bertrand said.

The boat, stabilized by its 40,000-pound keel, remained upright and some of the crew got the headsail halfway down before bailing out. Crew members were being pulled out of the water as the mast, mainsail still attached, slipped beneath the waves.

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