It was late at night UK time as the news broke of a horrific accident in San Francisco. Initially, all we knew was that the Artemis America's Cup AC72 had capsized during a training session in San Francisco Bay. Then shocking reports emerged of the tragic loss of life of one of the 11 crew members. After what seemed like an eternity - but was only a matter of an hour or so - the identity of that crew member was revealed and the British sailing community reeled in shock. Andrew Simpson, affectionately known as 'Bart' and one of the sport's nicest guys, was confirmed as the casualty. For those who were awake, it seemed like a bad dream, while others woke to the shocking news, which put sailing at the top of the news bulletins, for all the wrong reasons.
First official confirmation of the rumours regarding the dead man's identity came via the Artemis website, which stated: "It is with immense sadness that Artemis Racing confirms the tragic death of crew member Andrew 'Bart' Simpson today in San Francisco." Apparently Bart was trapped under the giant multihull when it capsized. Attempts to revive him, both afloat and subsequently ashore, were unsuccessful.
“The entire Artemis Racing team is devastated by what happened,” said Artemis Racing CEO Paul Cayard. “Our prayers are with Andrew Simpson’s family, his wife and kids, and also the rest of my teammates. It’s a shocking experience to go through, and we have a lot to deal with in the next few days in terms of assuring everybody’s well being."
An accident waiting to happen?
After last year's capsize of Oracle's AC72, fortunately without any injuries, there had been much speculation about the power of the new generation of America's Cup boats, and the potential for serious injury. Everyone hoped that the fears would prove unfounded.
Deaths in sailing are rare, the last one relating to America's Cup racing was when a Spanish crewman died in 1999 prior to the 2000 Cup. Before that you have to look back to 1935. Previously the biggest danger was that of being hit by a part of the boat's powerful rig, but the new mutihulls, with their high speeds and threat of capsize, bring new hazards. Simpson's death will undoubtedly fuel the debate over whether the current generation of boats is simply too powerful and dangerous.
A true Olympian
Bart, as he was universally known, won Olympic Gold in the Star class in 2008, sailing with life-long friend Iain Percy, and in 2012 the duo took silver. But that's just part of Bart's story. Growing up racing against Iain Percy and Ben Ainslie, he was training partner to both of them at various times, selflessly supporting their campaigns before teaming up with Percy to scoop his own first medal in Beijing. The celebrations as Ainslie jumped aboard after the winning duo crossed the line won gold were very emotional and few will forget the images of the three friends celebrating together.
A large character both literally and figuratively, Bart was quietly spoken and always modest about his achievements. His affable demeanor was matched by a fierce determination and outstanding talent that made him both a great sailor, and one of the sport's best loved characters. He was an inspiration, and a friend to many.
From the moment the news broke at about 2300hrs BST, the tributes poured in thick and fast. The most obvious visual display of support came as huge number of the people whose lives Bart had touched, changed their Facebook profile images to illustrations of the cartoon character from which he had gained his nickname.
One of my favourite tributes was from another Olympic Star class medallist, Mark Covell, who wrote: "We have lost a great sailor and a top bloke. I loved his stories from the games and the scrapes he got into with his two best mates, Iain [Percy] and Ben [Ainslie]. He always managed to get a good measure of expletives in, even in front of Royalty. Always brutally honest and humble. R.I.P. Andrew Bart Simpson. So sad..."
Ian Walker, double Olympic silver medallist and Volvo Ocean Race skipper wrote: "Nothing anyone writes can do justice to what a great character Bart was. He was furiously competitive and yet never took the sailing too seriously. He was always great fun to be around. A fantastic sailor whose biggest strengths were an uncanny ability to read the wind and in making those around him believe in themselves. Bart [was] the very best strategist a tactician could ever wish for."
On Twitter Olympic 470 medallist Luke Patience said "Devastated. Bart, you are a true inspiration," while top bowman Guy Salter tweeted: "Bart - a true legend - gutted - what a total waste - RIP", journalist Andy Rice tweeted: "Andrew 'Bart' Simpson - a big man with two Olympic medals and a heart of gold - has died far, far too young" and top match racing sailor Simon Shaw tweeted: "Today we lost a courageous sailor. A true friend from school, till now, my heart is with his family."
These comments give but a small taste of the huge respect, admiration and affection Bart instilled in so many. R.I.P. Andrew Simpson, b 17/12/76; d 09/05/13 - you will be missed by so many, but your legacy will live on. Condolences to the family and everyone who was close to him. The whole sailing world is in shock.