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Kiwi sailors heard 'an almighty bang' as wingsail falls into Mediterranean after race

The giant wingsail on Team New Zealand's foiling catamaran suddenly shattered and fell into the Mediterranean in a stunning scene on Saturday just minutes after the Kiwis had finished racing in the France Sail Grand Prix in Saint-Tropez.

The crew escaped injuries but the Kiwis weren't sure if the badly damaged wingsail could be repaired in time for the final day of racing Sunday. The 29-meter (95-foot) wingsail broke apart without warning, with most of it tumbling into the water and dragging the jib with it. A portion of the wingsail landed on the trampoline between the hulls and was hanging over the stern, just missing the crew in the cockpit in the starboard hull.

“Thankfully everyone on board is safe. It could have so easily fallen at a different angle and we were all on the starboard side of the F50 just touching down, something we’ve done 30-40 times today,” skipper Peter Burling said. "We just heard an almighty bang and watched it all unravel.”

The highly complex wingsails look and function like airliner wings, providing the power that allows the 50-foot catamarans to foil above the waves approaching highway speeds. They are designed to provide lift on either side to accommodate being on either port or starboard tack. They can be configured for different strength winds and weigh between 400 and 500 kilograms (approximately 900 and 1,100 pounds).

It will take a massive effort for the shore crew to repair the shattered wingsail in time for Sunday's racing.

The Kiwis had just gone 1-6-5 in Saturday's three races to share the lead with Denmark in the 10-boat fleet in tech baron Larry Ellison's global league. The carnage overshadowed a big day by U.S. skipper Jimmy Spithill, who is one point back in third after going 9-3-1.

Burling said it was too early to comment on what caused the structural failure aboard Amokura.

“The whole group has done an amazing job as a team getting the boat back here in the shape it’s in," he said. "I think we’re getting more and more angles and debriefing and I’ve honestly got no idea. On board, we weren’t doing anything different — just gently touching the boat in and coming up on course.”

Burling and wing trimmer Blair Tuke have led Emirates Team New Zealand to consecutive America's Cup victories and have won one gold and two silver medals together in the Olympics.

“Everyone’s pretty shaken after what was obviously a very scary incident,” Tuke said. "We’ve had the time to react, ascertain that we’re OK and now as the minutes and hours go on, I think we’re starting to realize both the extent of the damage and how lucky we were.

“We're pretty gutted,” Tuke added. “It was a strong statement from the team to bounce back from Los Angeles and win race one, followed by two other really well-sailed races.”

The Kiwis reached the $1 million, winner-take-all Grand Final of Season 3 in May but trans-Tasman Sea rivals Tom Slingsby and Team Australia sailed off their third straight title.

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