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America's Cup team calls for changes to make regatta safer

By Noel Randewich and Ronnie Cohen

ALAMEDA, California (Reuters) - The head of the Italian sailing team in the America's Cup called on Friday for lowering limits on wind speeds and other safety measures to make the regatta less dangerous following a deadly accident last week.

Prada fashion house co-founder Patrizio Bertelli said if the other three participants cannot agree on ways to improve safety, his team Luna Rossa Challenge could withdraw from the international competition due to get underway in San Francisco Bay in July.

Organizers have said races will go ahead, despite growing public concerns over safety after a British champion sailor was killed when one of the sleek, ultra-fast AC72 catamarans built for the competition capsized and broke apart last week.

Bertelli said his crew has faith in the AC72 boats and wants to race them, but he said the competition needs more water ambulances with professional divers and medics, and better personal safety gear like body pads and improved helmets.

"We sent the other teams our proposal to improve things," Bertelli told reporters. "The important thing is to get all the competitors to the table to bring clarity to the America's Cup."

Organizers have left open the possibility of changes to the rules of the race, brought to San Francisco by Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, whose team won the trophy in the 2010 event in Valencia, Spain.

After its first meeting on Thursday, a committee formed by organizers to review Swedish challenger Artemis Racing's fatal accident asked the teams to suspend sailing both the 72-foot America's Cup catamarans and the smaller AC45s until the middle of next week.

Bertelli's proposal to lower the maximum wind speed that would be allowed for races to proceed will likely be well received, Golden Gate Yacht Club Vice Commodore Tom Ehman told Reuters.

"People are scratching their heads and wondering if the wind limit should be lowered," he said. "There has been plenty of discussion among the teams about that, even before last week's accident."

Organizers have said they hoped to have recommendations from the committee within about two weeks. Among other factors, investigators will look at the structure of Artemis' "Big Red" yacht, which Regatta Director Iain Murray has said differed significantly from the catamarans of other competitors.

A sailor at an airplane hangar that Luna Rossa is using as a temporary base on the island of Alameda demonstrated torso padding and a small emergency oxygen tank worn on the back with a flexible breathing tube fixed near his mouth.

"The best way forward for the expert Review Committee is to complete its work and publish its recommendations so that we will achieve the safest-possible resumption of AC72 training and racing on San Francisco Bay as soon as possible," the America's Cup Event Authority said in a statement.

Teams in the America's Cup are required to stay within rules governing the design of their yachts but they also have leeway to customize their vessels with hydrofoils and other technology.

The death of Artemis' Andrew Simpson, a two-time Olympic medalist, marked the second time that an expert crew on one of the high-tech yachts, estimated to cost around $8 million each, lost control and flipped their boat in the heavy winds and rip currents of San Francisco Bay.

Simpson was trapped underwater after the Artemis catamaran turned upside down and broke apart while training.

Winds had been blowing on the water at 18 to 20 knots, or about 23 to 25 miles per hour, which race organizers described as typical conditions.

On Thursday, crew mates from Artemis and the three other teams slated to vie for the trophy threw wreaths into the bay where Simpson was killed.

YACHT CONTROVERSY

The America's Cup rules allow the winner of the most recent event - in this case Ellison's team - to choose the venue and regulations for the next challenge, a series of races that begin in July and go into September.

Hoping to attract wider interest in the sport, Ellison's Oracle Team USA created specifications that led to ultra-lightweight, two-hulled vessels with hard "wing" sails and hydrofoils that can lift most of the boat out of the water to reach speeds close to 50 mph.

But following the Artemis accident and an incident in October when Oracle's catamaran capsized and was swept out to sea, criticism has grown that the boats may be too hard to maneuver in San Francisco's Bay's heavy winds and rip currents.

An Oracle team spokeswoman had no immediate comment on Friday, and a spokesman for the Artemis team could not be reached for comment. Artemis Racing has said it was in the process of conducting a review of the accident.

C.W. Nevius, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, urged race officials to switch to the AC45s, which were used last year in early competitor eliminations, instead of the AC72s.

"The 72-foot catamarans are too much, too big, too powerful. Most of all, they are too dangerous," Nevius wrote. "Someone needs to make a hard choice and say the race will go back to the 45-foot catamarans that raced last summer."

Andy Turpin, managing editor of Latitude 38, a Bay area sailing magazine that had asked readers to share their thoughts about the accident, said about 80 percent of his readers also want the regatta to be sailed in the smaller boats.

"One of our readers made the analogy to the early days of Formula One racing. The biggest criticism is that they haven't been on the water long enough," Turpin told Reuters.

While Oracle has two AC72s, and Artemis has a second yacht that it has yet to launch in San Francisco Bay, Luna Rossa has only one.

The fourth team, Emirates Team New Zealand, has only one fully commissioned AC72.

(Reporting by Ronnie Cohen and Noel Randewich; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Alden Bentley and Greg Stutchbury)

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