SAN FRANCISCO — When he jumps aboard his high-performance catamaran, America's Cup champion skipper Jimmy Spithill is wearing his game face as well as equipment that can help save his life out on San Francisco Bay.
America's Cup sailors already wore crash helmets and life vests after the introduction of the 72-foot boats, which can sail faster than 40 knots and have been hard to handle.
After Artemis Racing's Andrew "Bart" Simpson was killed in a capsize on May 9, sailors began wearing body armor, knives, an air tank and breathing tube, self-lowering equipment and underwater locator devices.
That's how extreme this America's Cup has become. This is a nautical X Games compared to the days when sailors wore blue blazers and white pants.
"Any preconceived ideas about sailors, definitely America's Cup sailors, need to go out the window now," said Spithill, a 34-year-old Australian who steered Oracle Team USA to victory in the 2010 America's Cup. "It's a combination between sort of a motocross rider and an NFL linebacker. You're wearing impact protection, you've got spare air, knives, helmet, communication system. All the guys have been trained in underwater safety. It's serious business now. It can go wrong out there, and if it does, we've seen what can happen. You don't take it lightly."
Competition starts Sunday when Emirates Team New Zealand faces Italy's Luna Rossa in the opening race of the Louis Vuitton Cup. Artemis has yet to launch its new boat. The Louis Vuitton Cup winner will face Oracle in the 34th America's Cup starting Sept. 7.
Simpson was remembered with a three-minute video montage during the opening ceremony on Thursday.
Also Thursday, Artemis Racing CEO Paul Cayard issued a statement criticizing Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa for protesting two of the 37 safety recommendations, including a highly technical one involving winglets on the rudders.
Cayard said statements by those teams have been "erroneous, insulting, and downright disrespectful." He also said that suggestions that the two contentious issues were pushed through to help Oracle or Artemis "are slanderous and paranoid."
Spithill was at the wheel when Oracle's first boat capsized last October. No one was injured, but the boat was swept under the Golden Gate Bridge and the churning waves smashed the 131-foot, high-tech wing sail, sidelining the crew for four months.
The death of Simpson, a two-time Olympic medalist from Great Britain and a father of two, led regatta director Iain Murray to implement 37 safety recommendations, including adding survival gear. The knives are in case sailors need to cut themselves free after a capsize. The self-lowering devices are in case a boat rolls onto its side, stranding sailors high above the cold water.
Emirates Team New Zealand sailors wear white helmets with orange markings. Oracle's sailors wear silver helmets with the Red Bull logo, although one wears a white hockey helmet, and their sleeves are bright orange.
"It's more high-visibility, " said Russell Coutts, a four-time America's Cup winner and CEO of Oracle Team USA.
Simpson was trapped for at least 10 minutes under the twisted wreckage of Artemis' 7-ton boat.
Since Oracle had been sailing against Artemis right before the accident, Coutts was in a nearby chase boat.
"That was one of the keys, really. It took quite a while to find where he was," Coutts said. "And in the marine environment, you haven't got time. You've got between 30 seconds and I'd say up to two minutes, and after that, you know ... and unfortunately, they just couldn't find him. It was just horrible. Our diver went in the water. But when they couldn't find him for that length of time, you just knew it wasn't going to be good."
Each team has rescue divers and medics in the chase boats that struggle to keep up with the fast catamarans, which are so high-tech that they lift out of the water and ride on hydrofoils as they sail downwind.
Spithill said the team constantly does safety drills, including underwater simulations in which sailors practice getting their air supply going and getting out from under impediments.