Trimaran dismasts during testing

SAN DIEGO -- The 200-foot mast on the monster trimaran that will represent the United States in the America's Cup came crashing down during a sail on the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, snapping in two as it hit the rear beam.

None of the crew was injured in the mishap, which happened some 20 to 30 miles off Point Loma, BMW Oracle Racing helmsman Jimmy Spithill said after the 90-by-90-foot boat was towed back to its downtown berth at dusk.

"We're obviously pretty fortunate," Spithill said. "The boat itself, the actual platform, is in relatively good shape. The most important thing is getting back on shore with all the guys and the crew safe."

BMW Oracle Racing, owned by software tycoon Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp., is scheduled to face two-time defending champion Alinghi of Switzerland in a best-of-three showdown beginning Feb. 8.

The American syndicate has two other masts. The one that broke Tuesday is believed to have cost $10 million. A tender towed the biggest section, about 150 feet, back to port. There's a chance the mast can be repaired.

Spithill said the boat was on starboard tack when the carbon-fiber mast fell across the aft beam.

"It happened so quick. It obviously was very, very violent, quite a big shock when it went," Spithill said. "But really, everyone was calm. The support crew acted well and were able to get things all under control."

Spithill said he wasn't sure when the boat will be back in the water. He said the syndicate will look at on-board video and load data to figure out why the mast came down.

Spithill doesn't think it will be more than a temporary setback. The shore crew began working on the boat as soon as it was back in its berth.

"Obviously we've got to re-look at the program, but I think we're a strong team," Spithill said. "It'll be a real test for the team but I've got an idea we'll be able to bounce back and be ready in February."

The spar is under tremendous loads as it supports a mainsail that's twice as big as a Boeing 747's wing and a headsail that's not quite that large.

One possibility is that the bowsprit failed, causing the forward support to fail and leading to the mast falling backward.

BMW Oracle Racing has been testing the trimaran, known as BOR 90 and soon to be renamed USA, since last fall.

The space age-looking craft was relaunched last week after undergoing significant modifications to its main hull. The changes included the installation of a BMW diesel engine to run a hydraulic system that will be used to trim the sails and perhaps move water ballast from one hull to another.

Wind and sea conditions were light to moderate and there was some fog.

The crew has been careful testing the trimaran, which will square off against Alinghi's equally big catamaran, Alinghi 5.

Capable of sailing at two to 2½ times the speed of the wind, they are the fastest, most extreme boats built in the 158-year history of the America's Cup. Spithill said last week that his crew has sailed in the 40-knot range on the big boat.

In Race 4 of the 2003 America's Cup, Team New Zealand's 110-foot mast snapped in two and tumbled into the Hauraki Gulf moments after the 80-foot sloop buried its bow into two successive waves. Three sailors were knocked overboard, but they clung to the wrecked rigging and were pulled back on board.

Alinghi went on to a five-race sweep and then successfully defended its title against the Kiwis in 2007.

BMW Oracle Racing and Alinghi have been locked in a bitter two-year court fight over rules and the venue.

Justice Shirley Kornreich of the New York State Supreme Court sided with BMW Oracle Racing last week and ruled that Alinghi's choice of Ras al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates, wasn't eligible to host the America's Cup based on stipulations in the 1887 Deed of Gift that governs the racing.

The showdown will likely be held in Valencia, Spain, although the Swiss have appealed Kornreich's ruling.