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British sailing champ dies in America's Cup training off San Francisco

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - British yacht-racing champion and two-time Olympic medalist Andrew "Bart" Simpson was killed on Thursday when his vessel capsized in San Francisco Bay during training for the America's Cup, his team said.

Simpson, 36, who won a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, was sailing on the Artemis, Sweden's entry in the America's Cup, when the catamaran overturned, according to a statement posted on the Artemis racing website.

"The entire Artemis Racing team is devastated by what happened," CEO Paul Cayard said in the statement. "Our heartfelt condolences are with Andrew's wife and family."

The twin-hulled boat was performing a so-called "bear-away" maneuver, turning away from the wind, when one bow dropped under the water's surface, and the vessel flipped over, America's Cup spokesman Tim Jeffery told Reuters.

Simpson ended up trapped beneath the boat in the water and had to be pulled out by rescue divers, who tried and failed to revive him, Jeffery said.

The yacht was "very badly damaged," but the team has a backup boat that is expected to be ready to sail in June, he said.

The incident was believed to be the first fatality in connection with the America's Cup since the early 1990s, when a crew member from a Spanish team died in a training accident off the coast of Majorca in the Mediterranean, Jeffery said.

The Artemis website said Simpson was part of an 11-member sailing team and that all other crew members had been accounted for following the mishap.

San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge confirmed that one male crew member had died in the accident and said he was estimated to have remained under water for 10 to 15 minutes before he was recovered.

She said one other sailor from the Artemis was taken to a hospital with minor injuries and later released.

The precise number of people aboard the Artemis when it tipped over was not immediately clear.

Although America's Cup vessels sail with 11 crew members when they race, they are known to carry one or two more or one or two fewer members on practice runs.

A U.S. Coast Guard officer, Pam Boehland, said support boats had pulled 12 crew members from the water, and that one was taken to a San Francisco hospital.

Boehland said the Artemis capsized at about 1 p.m. local time (4 p.m. EDT) northwest of Treasure Island. The crippled vessel remained in the bay, and the Coast Guard established a 100-yard (91-metre) safety zone around the boat, she said.

'WINDY BUT NOT SUPER-EXTREME'

Winds on Thursday were blowing on the water at 18 to 20 knots, or about 23 to 25 miles per hour, which race organizers described as typical for the bay.

"The boats are designed to sail and compete in winds of up to 30 knots ... so this wasn't excessive," one America's Cup official told Reuters. "It was windy but not super-extreme."

Race organizers said Simpson was assigned as the crew's tactician but also would have been involved in operating winches and performing other tasks necessary to sail the twin-hulled boat.

This year's America's Cup competition begins in July with qualifying races known as the Louis Vuitton Cup. The America's Cup contest itself is slated to start on September 7. All the races will be run on San Francisco Bay.

Two other challenging teams, one from Italy and one from New Zealand, recently arrived in the Bay Area to begin training there.

The crew of the defending America's Cup champion boat, Oracle Team USA, was on the bay for training at the time the Artemis capsized, America's Cup officials said.

Oracle Team USA's boat flipped over in a practice run in October, damaging the windsail. But no one was injured, and the vessel was relaunched in January.

The wreck of the Artemis was at least the fourth major accident in just over a year off the California coast or involving California vessels.

In March a crew member was killed when a 30-foot (9-metre) sailboat broke apart in rough seas during a race near San Clemente Island.

In April 2012 four crewmen in a race from Southern California to Mexico died after their yacht ran aground. Two weeks earlier, five sailors died in a racing accident near the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco.

The Farallon incident prompted the Coast Guard to temporarily suspend racing in the Pacific Ocean off northern California.

Cayard spoke briefly to reporters outside the team's offices in the town of Alameda across from San Francisco.

"We obviously had a tragic day today on the bay. It's a shocking experience to go through. We have a lot to deal with for the next few days in terms of ensuring everybody's well-being," he said.

(Reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Xavier Briand)

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