By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The death of British yacht-racing champion Andrew "Bart" Simpson in an America's Cup training accident cast a cloud of doubt over the immediate future of the renowned race, as the event's top official refused on Friday to rule out possibly canceling this year's contest.
The accident in San Francisco Bay, due to host the America's Cup finals in September, followed numerous warnings about the safety of the sleek, high-tech catamarans that have become popular in yacht racing.
They are designed to compete in sustained winds of 30 knots, or nearly 35 miles per hour, and are capable of reaching speeds of up to 50 mph.
Speaking to reporters a day after Simpson, a two-time Olympic medalist was killed on the bay, America's Cup Event Authority CEO Stephen Barclay said all aspects of the high-stakes regatta would undergo a full review before organizers decide how to proceed with this summer's competition.
Barclay responded by saying, "Nothing's off the table" when asked whether his organization was considering using boats in the upcoming race other than the 72-foot, twin-hulled vessels involved in two training accidents, including the one that killed Simpson, since last fall.
When asked if it were possible that this year's competition, which begins with a qualifying contest in July, could be canceled, Barclay repeated his earlier statement and added: "We will look at what happens through the review process."
For now, competitors and race officials agreed to refrain from practice runs until at least Monday.
The San Francisco Police Department is investigating Simpson's death with the U.S. Coast Guard.
The website Sailing Anarchy, widely read by recreational and sports mariners, said in its first posting about Simpson's death, "Let's face it: We all knew it was going to happen. Pony air bottles and spelunking helmets notwithstanding, anything that goes 45 knots under sail is going to hurt its occupants sooner or later."
Simpson, 36, who won a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and a silver medal at last year's London Games, was sailing as the crew strategist on Sweden's entry for the America's Cup, the Artemis, when the vessel capsized on the bay northwest of Treasure Island.
Race officials said the boat was performing a "bear-away" maneuver, turning away from the wind, when one bow dug into the water's surface, and the vessel cartwheeled and broke apart.
Ten crew members swam to safety and were rescued by support vessels. Simpson, who was riding on the windward side of the vessel as it flipped, was thrown underwater and beneath the boat and could not immediately be located, officials said.
UNDERWATER FOR 10-15 MINUTES
"It appears Bart was trapped under solid sections of the yacht out of sight to the myriad people on board," regatta director Iain Murray said at the news conference. "We need to find out how you lose a person in a small boat with a lot of people looking."
A city Fire Department spokeswoman said Simpson was believed to have been underwater for 10 to 15 minutes before divers reached him. Efforts to revive him were futile. A second crew member suffered minor injuries.
Simpson himself had acknowledged safety concerns about the new generation of 72-foot catamarans. In September before he joined the Artemis Racing team, Simpson had sent his 3,000-plus Twitter followers a link to an article about America's Cup hazards by the sailing correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent.
"The flying machines which are the weapon of choice for the next America's Cup, one of the sporting world's more quirky events, are throwing up a mass of problems for sailors learning to control the new beasts and ... raising fears for the safety of the people racing them," the article began.
Simpson's death marked the first fatality in connection with the America's Cup since 1999, when a member of a Spanish team was killed in a training accident in the Mediterranean. No one has died sailing in the actual America's Cup race.
But Thursday's accident was the second wreck of an America's Cup vessel during training for the upcoming race. In October, the boat entered by the defending champions, Oracle Team USA, flipped and was badly damaged while performing the same "bear-away" maneuver as the Artemis, America's Cup spokesman Tim Jeffery said. That accident occurred in heavier winds and no one was hurt.
In the latest edition of Wired magazine, published before Thursday's accident, Artemis Racing's own CEO and tactician, Paul Cayard, predicted that at least one of the teams would capsize again.
"We're going to start pushing harder, we are going to race, and those kinds of boats - catamarans - tip over," he said.
One concern raised by Simpson's death was that it occurred in calm seas and under typical wind conditions for San Francisco Bay.
The bay is scheduled to be the scene of the Louis Vuitton Cup from July 4 through September 1, and the America's Cup Finals are set for September 7 to September 22.
Oracle Team USA, founded by billionaire Larry Ellison, will take on the challengers who qualify during the Louis Vuitton series.
If the races go on as scheduled, Artemis Racing has a backup boat, which the team could start racing as early as next month. Ellison's team also has a second vessel but two other teams in this year's competition, from Italy and New Zealand, do not.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Trott)