When the Land Rover BAR catamaran came down on the SoftBank Team Japan boat in aggressive America’s Cup racing this past weekend, there was a moment of fear among everyone watching.
After all, these foiling machines are capable of hitting close to 60 mph. A full-speed collision at that speed not only can be damaging, but potentially deadly. One might say the crash, so soon after the start of qualifier racing, took a lot of people’s breath away.
That’s one reason why, according to USA Today, the sailors on Oracle Team USA included free diving with Red Bull instructors as part of their America’s Cup training. In addition to carrying an air bottle (in case they’re trapped underwater) and a knife (to cut through any debris in a crash), each sailor wanted to be able to hold his breath for minutes at a time if necessary—even with a diver trailing each boat and ready to hit the water for rescues should a crash occur.
The freediving practice is important not only as a survival skill, but also for peace of mind. According to an Oracle Team USA grinder who spoke with USA Today, at least one sailor competing in the America’s Cup falls off a boat about once a month. The athletes need to feel confident that they can push the limits of their abilities without endangering their lives.
And of course, the tragic death of British sailor Andrew “Bart” Simpson continues to weigh on many sailors’ minds. Simpson died in 2013 after he got caught underwater in a capsize during America’s Cup training in San Francisco.
How long can the Oracle Team USA sailors hold their breath? By some estimates, four to five minutes.
Here’s hoping they never have to find out for sure.