IAIN PERCY ON ANDREW SIMPSON: ‘I need him now more than ever. My routine for so long was to go to Bart if there’s a problem.’
It’s late afternoon in San Francisco and Iain Percy is exhausted, but he’s worried about where his mind will wander if he takes a break. He’s barely stopped in the nine weeks since his America’s Cup catamaran capsized and his best friend fell into the water.
‘I need him now more than ever,’ he says. His voice is shaky. ‘My routine for so long has been to go to Bart if there’s a problem.
‘We’ll talk it through and come up with a solution. I’d be going to see him five times a day right now.’
Percy goes quiet. This is the first newspaper interview he has done since Andrew Simpson, the giant, jolly hero of Britain’s Olympic sailing team, was found dead among the wreckage on San Francisco Bay on May 9.
Over the course of an hour, Percy has been recalling the 26 years since they met as a pair of gifted 10-year-olds over some Lego bricks. There were the barbeques, the road trips, the day Percy stood as Simpson’s best man and the dinners dominated by the big man’s desire to pass around pictures of his wife and two children. There were the Olympic medals they won together.
But there are also the awful memories of a training crash that has left so much more than a £5million boat in pieces.
‘I’ve tried to distract myself by working crazy hours,’ he says. ‘I know I should take a break, but it’s a defence mechanism. It’s a necessity. I’d rather concentrate on the team.’
The Artemis crew he skippers weren’t on the start line when the America’s Cup trials commenced this week. By the time they return in a new boat, he knows they will have no chance of keeping pace with rivals that have spent £100million and years refining their operations.
His only mission is to get his team racing again, to give their 140 employees something to celebrate at the end of a project that, inevitably, will be remembered for one of the worst tragedies in the event’s history.
‘If anyone could pick up a team at a time like this, it would be Bart,’ Percy adds.
His memory goes back to August 18, 2008 and Qingdao. Percy and Simpson led the Olympic Star fleet with one race to go.
‘It was the kind of situation where the opposition are looking for you to get nervous,’ Percy says. He already had an Olympic gold medal from Sydney, but Simpson was gunning for his first.
‘That morning, Bart is walking around the boat park and speaking to all the sailors. Talking about all sorts. They are all stood there thinking, “What’s this about?” but Bart’s just chatting away.
‘As soon as he walked off you could see how unsettled they were. How could anyone be that calm? But he knew what he was doing. He got back to our boat with a grin. I just looked at him and said, “Now let’s crush them”.’
They won the gold. In 2012, they took silver.
‘He deserved more than two Olympic medals,’ Percy says. ‘If he had come from any other country he would have been their most decorated sailor in history.
‘You only have to look at what he did at the 2000 Olympics and in Athens to know what he was like.’
He’s referring to the two occasions Simpson was overlooked for Olympic selection in the Finn class, first in favour of Percy in Sydney and then Ben Ainslie in 2004.
‘The night I got selected he came up to me and said, ‘Let’s have a beer’, Percy says. ‘Straight out he asks what he can do to help. He flew out to Sydney and paid out of his pocket to help me train.
‘I have this picture in my mind of him on the shore with my parents after I won gold and they all had tears running down their faces. He was so happy for me.
‘Four years later Ben was picked in front of him, but he did the same thing.
‘The funny thing, once he had his own medals he never bragged. We came back from China and saw some friends – Bart didn’t mention the gold, he just asked about their families.
‘He was so driven but he knew his priorities. His wife, Leah, and the two boys, Hamish and Freddie, were everything to him. He’d always get the pictures out. A few of us used to joke he was one of those baby bores, but he’d just carry on.’
Percy pauses. ‘I just can’t believe it all.’
The Thursday of the tragedy was Leah’s birthday.
‘Bart had been in a great mood that morning, talking about doing a barbeque for her birthday on the Saturday,’ he says.
‘His barbeques were great. What he described as a chicken wing was actually half a chicken. He used to throw such good parties. Every year on his birthday, December 17, I would go round his and he’d be making mulled wine, which was 90 per cent brandy. He’d be in such a state at the end of the night.
‘He was in good spirits that Thursday. I remember him talking about trying out some new sail shapes on the boat. We both had reservations about the class of boat when it was chosen but we were over them by then.’
The AC72 catamaran is one of the most controversial in the event’s history. It features a solid 130ft wing sail rather than the soft sails of conventional boats, a development which has generated speeds never before seen in the Cup. As a trade-off, they are far harder to manoeuvre, particularly when bearing away to go from sailing downwind to upwind.
That’s what Percy’s Artemis crew were attempting to do shortly after 1pm.
‘Bart was trimming the jib and was sat at the front of the boat on the windward hull,’ Percy says.
What caused the boat to flip is not clear as an investigation is ongoing, but members of the team insist the boat did not break until after the capsize.
‘Capsizing was always the fear,’ Percy says. ‘In a 45ft boat the fall would be about one storey. In these boats it’s three. And with this class of boat there is that risk – they have too much power.’
It’s why the sailors are each kitted out with emergency oxygen canisters and crash helmets.
‘When we hit the water, we did a head count and quickly realised Bart was missing,’ Percy adds.
Percy and nine of his 10 crew mates were fished out of the water, but he jumped back in as desperation took over. Simpson had been trapped under the boat for 10 minutes by the time he was found.
It was Percy who broke the news to Leah.
‘I can’t believe how strong she’s been,’ he says. They speak regularly.
Percy pauses again. He’s been trying to suppress many of these thoughts over the past two months, but ‘everything’ stirs a memory. Soon he will take delivery on a long-standing order for four chairs and a desk he ordered from the furniture company Simpson set up earlier this year.
‘Funnily enough, one of the main producers of the Simpsons heard about Bart a while back and found out about the company,’ Percy says. ‘They became friends and he ordered some stuff.
‘That made me laugh, but most things about Bart did. That’s what I’m trying to focus on – the positive things. That’s why I am doing this interview. He never bigged himself up or said how good he was, so I won’t get tired of saying it for him.
‘I can tell you he was a great person and he will be missed.’