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By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The head of New Zealand's America's Cup team has sharply rejected the idea of major changes to the sailing competition's high-tech catamarans in the wake of an accident that killed a British sailor.
Grant Dalton, managing director of Emirates Team New Zealand, told Reuters on Thursday that he supported new safety rules put forward last week by event organizers. But he dismissed suggestions by some sailors, including members of the Artemis Racing team that suffered the accident, that big changes such as smaller sails or power-assisted on-board controls were necessary.
"That's not going to happen. That's a fundamental change to systems that if they couldn't get right in the first place, that's their problem," Dalton said before heading out for a practice session on San Francisco Bay.
Artemis' 72-foot (22-metre) catamaran capsized and broke apart on May 9 during a training session and killed British Olympian Andrew Simpson, who was trapped under the wreckage. The accident raised questions about the fundamental soundness of the huge, lightweight boats, which can reach speeds of close to 50 miles per hour (80 kmh).
Software mogul Larry Ellison won the cup in 2010, and the defending champion is entitled to choose the venue and set the rules for the next competition. Ellison and his sailing team hoped the big, fast boats, called AC72s, would boost interest in the event, but their cost and complexity kept some competitors away, and only four teams are competing for the trophy.
The competition is scheduled to kick off in July and culminate in a final match in September.
Dalton and his team, which arrived in San Francisco earlier in May, are prepping eagerly for the competition. Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA were both blazing around San Francisco Bay in moderate winds on Thursday, practicing their turns, monitoring boat performance and spying on one another.
REGATTA IN FLUX
The new safety rules include lower wind limits for racing, improved personal safety gear for sailors and reducing the number of qualifying races to allow more time for boat maintenance.
Sweden's Artemis, which has a second boat that it has yet to sail in San Francisco Bay, has said it may not compete if its sailors feel the rule changes are insufficient. The fourth team in the competition, Italy's Luna Rossa, has also expressed serious concerns about safety and has declined to comment on whether it considers the new rules sufficient.
The New Zealand team designed and built its AC72 specifically to withstand the strong gusts and currents of San Francisco Bay, Dalton said. Making significant rule changes now that require altering the boats would be unfair, he said.
"Anything that increases the safety for the guys on board is a good thing. If it doesn't benefit one team over another then we're in favor of that," he said.
Still, he warned that the big catamarans, which use hard "wing" sails and are estimated to cost $8 million to build, are inherently difficult to make and sail.
"As Artemis has shown, if you get this engineered wrong - and it's not hard, we could have yet, we just haven't seen that boundary - they just disintegrate," he said.
Dalton said the carbon-fiber boats have shown themselves to be a poor choice for the cup races.
"Much of this is a folly. There's nothing more easily seen than that there are only three teams (challenging Oracle), now sort of two and a half teams," Dalton said.
(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Eric Walsh)