AC72's America's Cup Quest
Credit: Photograpg by Jose Mandojana

On May 9, the day of the Artemis crash, Spithill was proved all too right. The Swedish team was out training in the main bay. The conditions were moderate, not too rough, and they had already made a few uneventful runs. They were just about to line up again, near Treasure Island, when, in the middle of a bear away – the same maneuver that tripped up Oracle in October – something went very wrong. There was a loud crack, and the Artemis boat listed heavily to port. Then the boat nose-dived, and its crew went into the water.

Spithill was nearby, watching from Oracle's boat. "It just folded onto itself," he says. "Then it went straight down." Oracle's support crew raced over to help – but the water was strewn with wreckage, and in the confusion, Simpson, the English Olympian, had gone missing under a piece of debris. By the time he was found, it was too late. They pulled him out and tried to revive him, but he was already dead.

All sailing was suspended indefinitely while the race organizers launched an inquiry. There was a lot of hand-wringing about safety requirements and preventive measures. Some people questioned whether the race could – or should – even happen. After their own capsize, Oracle had instituted several safety measures designed to protect sailors in case of another accident, like high-visibility gear and a tank of spare air. They had shared their findings with the other teams, but not everyone had taken advantage.

Oracle's sailors won't speculate publicly about what went wrong with Artemis' boat, saying they're waiting for the official Coast Guard investigation. But they all agree that it was something structural. "You don't expect the boat to break in half," de Ridder says. "When we got there, it was in pieces. It was messy."

Two weeks after Simpson's death, Spithill is back at Oracle's base. Several of his teammates are on their way to the airport to attend the memorial service in the U.K. "A couple of our guys were close, but everyone knew him," he says softly. "He was one of the world's best." Before Oracle's capsize in October, Spithill had talked about how crashes would be good for the sport, like a pileup in nascar – that's what appealed to fans. But now, he seems to have reconsidered.

The fallout from Simpson's death soon threatened to derail the whole Cup. The preliminary rounds had been scheduled to start in July, but because of the damage to Artemis' boat, they had to sit out while they built a new one. A bigger problem, however, was the rules changes. Race director Iain Murray proposed 37 of them, from lowered wind limits to mandatory high-visibility gear. Most were accepted by the teams unanimously, but two changes sparked great controversy, especially one governing an obscure piece of equipment called a rudder elevator. Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa charged that the rudder change was about performance, not safety, and that it gave Oracle an unfair advantage. Both appealed to an impartial jury, and, in the meantime, Luna Rossa refused to sail. For the first week of the Louis Vuitton Cup, New Zealand ran three races unopposed: two against Artemis (still out of commission), and one against Luna Rossa (boycotting). The Cup had officially become a farce.

The jury eventually decided in the appealing teams' favor, and the teams were directed to return to the old rudders. Luna Rossa – whom Coutts had derided as "a bunch of spoiled rich kids dressed in Prada" – resumed sailing. Artemis, meanwhile, look on track to be back on the water by the third week in July, but their future was also doubtful: Because they had built their boat with the new-style rudders, it remained to be seen whether they would be allowed to race.

It's extremely unlikely that, after nearly half a billion dollars, the Cup won't actually go on in some form or another. But either way, the sailors say, they're already ruined. "There's never been any sailing like this," Tom Slingsby says. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. What if someone else wins, and they decide to go back to boats that go eight knots?"

"I'm going to have to change sports," jokes Shannon Falcone. "I can't go back to another boat."

"It's that thrill factor," Spithill says. "The adrenaline is unreal." He admits that his family worries about him, and that there are times when he himself is...not scared, exactly, but definitely anxious. "But afterward," he says – once you're back safe and dry on the dock – "you look back and think, 'Fuck! How good was that?'"

Contributing editor Josh Eells profiled Blake Shelton in the August issue.