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Scuttlebutt News Center:

Yacht drama in Sydney harbour

Click to enlarge
Photo by Tim Wimborne/Reuters

(November 2, 2004) A spokesman for Kookaburra Challenge, Steffan Jacob, has provided the details surrounding the America’s Cup Class yacht FT Spirit losing its bulb near the Sydney Opera House on October 26, 2004. Steffan, who was on the boat at the time, hopes to set the record straight and notify owners of large yachts with deep keels to keep well clear of the Opera House's existing markers, at least until the investigation finds out what FT Spirit actually struck.

FT Spirit was sailing on Sydney Harbour for an in-house photo shoot for her new corporate sponsor, The Financial Times, with crewmembers also checking and tuning up the rig and her new sails. The America's Cup Class yacht, had a crew of 6 and some representatives from The FT and their PR company on board, making a total of 15 crew in all.

At around 12:15pm, with sheets eased and the boat coasting at around 7 knots in about 10 knots of breeze, FT Spirit was approximately 80m off the north eastern corner of the Opera House when it hit and rode over something under the water. At this point she ghosted along for a couple of boat lengths then very, very slowly fell over onto her port side.

The tip of the 35m tall mast laid on the corner of the NE wall of the concourse of the Sydney Opera House. The mainsail was pierced just below the headboard by a lamppost on the Opera House forecourt wall and this served to hold the yacht pinned for some time until crew could clamber up and cut the main free thus dropping the rig down onto the seabed below the wall. At the point of impact with the Opera House the yacht was some 110ft away from the wall. With the 220 square metre mainsail still impaled on the lamppost the current swung the hull around slowly until the bow eventually came to rest against the Opera House wall.

When the boat started slowly falling over the crew immediately knew that the bulb had fallen off, and so moved quickly up to the high side of the boat. A couple of guests in the cockpit on the leeward side got a bit wet before they were helped up to the high side, but at no time did anyone fall into the Harbour or out of the cockpit area at all. Within a few minutes of the incident, the guests were walked along the inside wall of the cockpit to the back of the boat where they and all but 4 crew, stepped into an available water taxi in a very simple and efficient evacuation. No injuries were sustained and no other property was damaged except for a couple of wet mobile phones and the lampshade on the Opera House wall!

The four crew left on board took off the jib and passed it up to spectators at the Opera House who very kindly flaked it. One crewmember climbed up to the forecourt to work on freeing the pinned mainsail and the remaining crew concentrated on getting the main free to salvage whatever they could of the sail, which had been expensively hand painted on both sides for the sponsor.

During this operation the water police came alongside demanding to breathalyse the skipper immediately, leaving only 2 crew to work on the mainsail. The skipper, Chris Links, a long-term employee of the company and a top sailor of big boats, Etchells and various other classes, tested negative and was quickly returned to the yacht.

By this time spectator boats were coming in for a closer look, their wakes pushing the bow harder onto the wall so it was imperative to get the main off and free the boat from the lamppost so it could be towed away. Working in the water and after some difficulties with spreaders pinning the mainsail down the FT Spirit crew managed to eventually free it and floated it out off the boom between the running backstays, with the kind assistance of a tender boat from the CYCA.

A barge crane was brought in to hold the mast up as the Kookaburra Ute towed the yacht, still on its side, to Noake's Boatyard. The integrity of the carbon hull was never challenged as the hull floated quite high and was amazingly relatively dry below.

On Thursday, 28 October, the bulb was recovered by divers some 40m off the NE corner of the Opera House. It showed that the point of impact was underneath at the front and slightly to starboard. It seems that the FT Spirit continued to sail after the impact for a couple of boat lengths before the bulb eventually let go. This was confirmed also by the fact that divers saw no evidence of impact where the bulb lay. There was no sign of corrosion and the keel fin was untouched with the attachment to the hull also unmarked. The bulb has been sent off to Broens Industries for further analysis and refitting before it is returned to Noakes to be put back onto the fin.

The incident happened in a line well outside the Port pile mark of the Opera House. The combination of FT Spirit's 4.2m keel, running conditions, a low tide (.34m) at 1258 and quite murky water, made contact with a foreign object or an unchartered rock possible. FT Spirit should be back in the water in 2 - 4 weeks.

FT Spirit (ex ‘Spirit Of Australia’) was designed, built and skippered by Iain Murray as the 'people's challenger' for the America's Cup raced in San Diego in 1992. - Steffan Jacob, Kookaburra Challenge

Click here for additional photos of the incident.

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