Remembering Andrew Simpson: How an Olympian sailed into the history books

Story highlights

  • Olympic gold medalist Andrew Simpson caught in accident in the lead up to the America's Cup
  • Simpson's love affair with sailing began when he was a child
  • Best friend and crewmate Iain Percy led tributes to the sailor

On May 9, a cool breeze blew across the waters of San Francisco Bay. Gliding across the surface, two teams of world-class sailors -- Oracle Team USA and Swedish Artemis Racing -- were hard at work preparing for the upcoming America's Cup. According to reports, the wind was "a little above normal" at 25 to 35 mph, but nothing that professional sailors couldn't handle. Across the waterfront, anticipation was building ahead of the first America's Cup to be held in the U.S. since 1995.

After an uneventful morning training session, disaster suddenly struck, when the 72-ft Artemis catamaran bore violently away from the Oracle, and swiftly capsized. Beneath its vast hull, Olympic gold medalist Andrew Simpson found himself trapped, and despite desperate efforts to save him, the married father of two could not be rescued from the wreckage. Simpson was just 36.

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Andrew Simpson's early death shocked the world of sailing and brought a glittering career to a premature end.

"Bart", as he was nicknamed by his friends after the mischievous TV character in "The Simpsons", was a talented sailor, a fierce competitor, and a devoted father.

His love affair with sailing began early. As a young boy, Simpson's grandparents took him out in a Sea Flyer on the spectacular natural harbour of Christchurch in Dorset. He was instantly smitten, and from that day onwards sailing was always his first passion.

Read: Sailors wisdom from the sea

After a few years of sailing, Simpson's parents gave him a boat of his own, which he raced alongside future fellow Team GB sailors Iain Percy and the four-time Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie. From the very beginning, the youngster's love of the sport and effortless talent caught the eye of national racing coach Jim Saltonstall. Simpson "enjoyed learning to sail better all the time," Saltonstall remarked.

Simpson began his career in a Laser class one-man dinghy, but soon graduated to the heftier Finn class -- the perfect boat in which to prepare for his forthcoming Olympic career.

In 2000, Simpson was under consideration for the Olympics in Sydney, but ultimately lost his place to best friend Iain Percy whom he had met as a boy. At the age of eight, if it was too windy to sail, Simpson and Percy could often be found building Legos together on the shore. Their friendship was immediate, profound and lifelong.

When Sydney 2000 finally came around, Simpson traveled to Australia as Percy's training partner, and proudly helped his old friend to a gold medal. Four years later, Simpson trained alongside teammate Ben Ainslie ahead of the Olympics in Athens. Again, the team found success, with Ainslie taking gold in the Finn class.

Finally Simpson earned his own place in the British team as Percy's crewmate at Beijing in 2008. From the moment they began to sail together in preparation for the competition, the two friends thrived. Their partnership brought them bronze at the 2007 Star World Championship -- a strong omen ahead of the Beijing Games.

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In China, Percy and Simpson performed beautifully, and began the medal race in second place, before fighting hard to regain the lead from Sweden. They sailed across the finish line -- and onward into the history books. The following year Simpson was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), one of Britain's highest honors.

Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson in action at the London 2012 Olympic Games

On receiving the gold medal, Percy summed up the intimate connection between the pair's professional success and their personal friendship: "To share it with Bart who's my best mate of years and years, we've been through so much. It's the moment when you've crossed the line and you're on the water, just the two of you. You haven't hit the shore and the crowds and the rest of the team. There's about a 10 minute period which is quite special because it's the two of you that have been on that journey all the way through. It's a really satisfying feeling of two mates who have worked really hard."

Talking to the Royal Yachting Association in 2009, Simpson said he had felt similarly moved: "It was fantastic. I mean, what do you say? It was the most incredible feeling. You win a gold medal with your best friend and you're on the podium and the national anthem's played and you've just had a really tough regatta. It's not like we won it easy, it was a real war. Yes, It was emotional, for sure. Iain looked like he was going to cry so I put my arm round his back and said 'nice work mate.'"

When it came to competition, Simpson was known as a perfectionist, with a meticulous eye for detail. He had a sophisticated comprehension of the mechanics of sailing and worked tirelessly on his Star ahead of all major competitions.

Percy describes Simpson as "the friendliest, kindest man I have ever met." Within the sailing fraternity he was both respected and deeply loved. A cavalcade of tweets from sporting luminaries erupted as news of his untimely death spread across the globe.

British cyclist Sir Chris Hoy wrote: "shocked to hear of the death of Andrew Simpson, Olympic Champ sailor. Met him a number of times, great guy. My thoughts are with his family." Gold winning long jumper Greg Ruthorford echoed Hoy's distress: "Waking up to hear the tragic news about Andrew Simpson. So very sad, a true gent. My heart goes out to his family."

Read: Dispatch from Ensenada

Tim Jeffrey, a spokesman for the America's Cup, and long-time friend of Simpson said: "I remember some of the photo shoots ahead of the Olympics where the photographer wanted the guys to look mean and moody and portray synthetic aggression and he just couldn't do that. He was a perpetual grinner. He was given an extra large happy gene."

This week, ahead of the America's Cup, Percy spoke to CNN about his mixed feelings on returning to competition. "This Cup will always remind me of losing Bart," Percy said. "It will always do that and it's going to be very painful, but professionally the team are going to come out stronger, they're an incredibly talented bunch, an incredibly united group and we're going to hold our head up high and look forward to the future."

Artemis crewmate Paul Cayard added: "Knowing Bart and what an accomplished person he was, he would want us to accomplish the mission."

The America's Cup opened last week in San Francisco, and will conclude on September 21.

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