Australian Nathan Outteridge made his mark on the Olympic stage, dominating the 49er skiff before claiming Gold at the 2012 Games. Combined with his skills in the foiling International Moth, winning the 2011 Worlds, he became the kind of talent America’s Cup teams sought out.
After proving his mettle with Team Korea, he was recruited by the fully funded Artemis Racing team as helm, and was steering their red AC72 on May 9th during the horrific accident that destroyed the boat and killed crewman Andrew 'Bart' Simpson.
The team has been mostly quiet since the accident, but called up Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck to see about a chat with Nathan. Here is how it went
Let’s start with an easy question, when will your new boat launch?
Nathan: We are still putting it together, doing some structural testing, so we are hoping by the start of July to have it on the mooring and continue the remaining tests on the water.
Once you begin sailing the new boat, what are the differences that will require the greatest focus?
Nathan: The new wing will be quite similar, so we will adjust to that quite easily, and have high confidence in its reliability. The main area that will be our focus is the board control system. Once you start foiling, the whole boat revolves around that system. How well you can control the board rake relates to how hard you can push the boat and how safely you can sail it.We learned a lot on the AC45 with the foiling package, and are now testing the AC72 rake control system inside the shed to learn about the friction that is involved and the loads that are going through it. So though we are not currently sailing, we are recreating the sailing environment inside the shed to insure that by the time we hit the water the system is working well.
The AC72 sails so smoothly, it is hard to appreciate the dangers that lie within.
Nathan: The only way to really appreciate the dangers is to be on the boat. What is most frightening is how much power the boat generates, and how much load is going through these boats. These are not ocean going catamarans; they are quite small in comparison. The fastest way to design the boat is to make it as aerodynamic as possible. They don’t have much freeboard. These things are a weapon; it is an extremely fast boat that has to be sailed almost perfectly.
I have watched all the other 72s sail, and when you watch on camera they appear to be gliding along quite nicely. It doesn’t appear that much is happening. There will be some guys grinding, but it’s hard to tell what they are grinding. And then you get onboard the boat yourself, and we got an idea of this on the foiling 45, that while it appears to be an easy smooth ride, you are kind of hanging on for dear life.
On the AC45, you’re sailing a boat that weighs nearly two tons, you are fully foiling going 35 knots, and you have two bits of carbon on the boards supporting you. There is a little push button and some oil that controls the board rake system, and if you get the controls slightly wrong it’s either going to stomp out of the water and skid sideways or it’ll do a messy dive and go bad then. You are literally on the edge the whole time, which is why the board control system is so crucial. Having a reliable board control system so that you’ll always have enough power to push the button to adjust the boat has become so important to sail safe and fast.
The new boat was due in late May. Explain the delays.
Nathan: The accident cost us a lot of time. The new wing was due to be finished by late June, so that was always going to hold us up a bit after the accident. And because of the accident, instead of focusing on getting the new boat ready, we had to salvage the damaged boat, bring it back in the shed, and focus on the investigation. For the new boat, we needed the time to do all the structural checks that the safety committee recommended, going through all the load tests on the boat, and taking the time to reinforce any areas that need it. So the process has taken time to implement the improvements.
Have you determined the cause of the accident?
Nathan: The accident is still under review, and while we have a good hunch on bits and pieces, at the moment we are waiting for a complete review before we make any official statement regarding what happened.
But there were lessons from the accident that the team is applying to the new boat?
Nathan: For sure. Our first and second boats were similar in some aspects, but the new boat was already stronger in certain areas because of its foiling package. And all the time we were sailing the red boat we were learning about different bits and pieces that we were always implementing into boat two. But yes, through our detail review, there has been a list of areas where we needed to change, improve, or reinforce.
With the extreme nature of the AC72, the likelihood of injury was undeniable. Yet, the reaction and response to Bart’s death from within the America’s Cup community seemed unprepared. How is danger perceived from inside this community?
NS: When I began sailing the AC45 at the beginning of last year, it proved to be a difficult boat given its speed and when it capsizes, the manner in which people get thrown. So when it became time to start sailing the AC72, it was clear that it was as likely, if not more likely, to capsize too. You look at its size and power, and how the AC72 has more power to weight ratio to righting moment than the AC45. So after watching the Oracle team capsize in October, it was reinforced at what could happen. So I was always very careful when sailing the boat, to manage it quite safely.
We consider sailing to be a relatively safe sport, certainly when you compare it to motor racing or any of the extreme sports, but the AC72 that the defender has created for us to compete in is by far one of the most extreme boats that exist. So that is the risk that we have all taken. I knew every day when stepping on the boat that there was a good chance that something bad could occur. It was less apparent when helming, as I am focused on what I need to do, and I feel that I have some control. But whenever I was positioned in another role, the dangers of the boat were more apparent; the risks were more evident.
So this is the inherent nature of the boat. We all recognize how easily a situation can go bad, and how people can easily die. Think for a moment how far we could fall. We did a recent trip to the diving platform, doing a 10 meter jump into the water. That’s pretty scary when you think of the much greater distance falling from the back of the AC72 on a pitchpole. The water is hard jumping off that platform, it hurts, so you can imagine what it would be like flying into a daggerboard or the forestay at 40 knots.
The accident has proven to be extremely disruptive to the event. Spectator tickets had to be refunded, rules changes are being debated, and the approval of the Coast Guard event permit has been delayed. How does your team feel about its impact on the event?
NS: For sure, everyone in our team wished it never happened. We are 100% supportive of the event, and now hope that as a result of our accident and Bart’s death, there is some good that comes from it. Everyone is now looking at the event differently, and that changes are put in place to insure the event can proceed safely, offer really good racing, and become the great event that Larry Ellison envisioned.
What they are trying to achieve is amazing. To have fast, exciting boats in this windy venue of San Francisco, creating a course that is accessible for spectators yet offer great racing, was nearly perfect. The most disappointing aspect of the plan is that the AC72 does not fit the venue. It is an extremely overpowered boat in 15 knots, let alone in 30 knots. But we’ll get through this, it will be a tremendous show, and the lessons learned will make the next America’s Cup that much better.
What would you say to the people that are skeptical about your team’s chances?
NS: There have been a lot of hurdles that this team has had to overcome. But if you came to the base for one day, and saw how much time and effort the entire team was putting forth, it would be clear that the team remains focused and determined. We’re not unrealistic, but just because we have had a few knocks doesn’t mean we are going to give up and stop trying.
This America’s Cup was always going to be a huge challenge; just getting the boat launched and sailing is an achievement. But we are a team that wants to race, and when we get our boat out on the water, we are going to do everything we can to learn how to sail it as fast and safely so we can join the challenger series and take on Prada and New Zealand.
Who knows, we might find we have a really fast boat, and the sailing team rallies up to the challenge, and we are able to compete against the other teams. While it doesn’t look great for us at the moment, and the other teams have been out there, and Team New Zealand in particular looks very strong, we remain eager for the opportunity to get on the race course and compete.