Friday, May 10, 2013

For those in peril on the sea

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave.”

The school hymn of Pangbourne College, alma mater of Andrew Simpson, the Olympic sailor who lost his life yesterday in a capsizing off San Francisco, keeps coming into my mind.

Composed as a poem by William Whiting in 1860 and set to music a year later by John Dykes, the hymn has long been adopted by navies around the world and is often sung on Remembrance Sunday. So it was appropriate that it should be a favourite at Pangbourne, whose founding mission was to prepare boys for a career in the Merchant Navy.

As well as Simpson, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2008 and a silver last summer, the school produced Rodney Pattisson, twice an Olympic sailing champion, John Ridgway, an ocean sailor and rower, and Mike Hailwood, the former world champion motorcyclist and Formula One driver who died in a car accident at the age of 40, albeit not racing on a track as seemed to be the fate of many of his contemporaries.

What connects them, apart from the school, is they spent their lives in quest of a thrill. They were not happy with risk-avoidance; they wanted to live in adventure without regret.

Having covered sailing for The Times for a few years, I had got to know Simpson, Ben Ainslie and Iain Percy, his fellow Olympians and childhood friends, quite well. I even sailed with them in an America’s Cup yacht four years ago, a faintly terrifying experience.

That was in the older monohull boat, though. The craft to be used for this year’s America’s Cup is a monstrous beast, 72ft long and with a mast 13 storeys high. The catamaran’s wing sail, a rigid structure designed to give maximum force, is bigger than the wing of a jumbo jet.

Speaking to a colleague last October, after another of these AC72 boats had flipped over off San Francisco, Max Sirena, the skipper of the Italian America’s Cup team, said that they would not dare to take guests out on it in anything but the lightest conditions.

An investigation is now under way to discover the cause of the accident that claimed Simpson’s life and many are calling for the America’s Cup, due to be held in September, to be postponed or raced in smaller boats. Safety must not be compromised by speed.

Yet I wonder if it is what the sailors really want. Most of them love pushing their boats and themselves to the limit and when not racing yachts will spend their leisure in other apparently hazardous pursuits, such as kite-surfing.

“These are dangerous boats,” Sirena said today. “The boat is basically too powerful. At the same time, this is our sport. This is a risk we take.” For him, danger was to be anticipated and measures put in place to survive it, but never to be wholly avoided.

When the US Oracle team’s AC72 capsized last October, it was while doing a turning manoeuvre in choppy water with a 25 knot wind. They call the point of no return in such a move “the death zone” and the only way to get through it is to go as fast as you can.

On that occasion, although the boat capsized, there were no significant injuries to any of the crew. Speaking almost flippantly after the event, Tom Slingsby, one of the sailors, said: “We’ve been pushing the boat more and more and we found our limit today.” A crew-mate recalled the last thing he heard before leaping into the water was his skipper shouting at them to keep an eye on each other.

Last summer, before the Olympics, I chatted to Simpson and Percy about their friendship, which had lasted more than 25 years. One poignant phrase of Simpson’s sticks in the mind today. Asked whether they had any plans to retire, Percy said that racing was what they lived for.

Simpson added: “I think I would struggle just pottering up and down creeks in my old age.”

“Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!”