AC34: How to Get Around the Racecourse
To sail a 72-foot foiling catamaran around the course in AC34, the competitors will have to attack, attack, attack. And we’re not talking about attacking the opponent. It’s about attacking the course.
Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker and the rest of his team began the transition to foiling catamarans two years ago in 33-footers. According to Barker, “All your monohull instincts are wrong. The best philosophy is to push as hard as you can. Your big risks are in the bear-away to downwind, because that’s when the boat really wants to load up, especially if you’re slow. The faster you’re going, the farther forward the apparent wind and the less the risk of sticking the bows. You have to commit. Speed is your friend. The rest is in the lap of the gods.”
Not that you will be at rest in the lap of the gods for very long. Because the racecourse is so tight you’ll be tacking or gybing every minute, two at the most. In each of those minutes you’ll be traveling a third of a mile, and the races are so short—they’ll be length-adjusted to suit a television schedule—that every move is intensified, every consequence magnified.
Upwind or down, a common denominator among all the 11-man crews is the blending of roles that were once distinct. Oracle USA tactician John Kostecki, for example, now describes himself as Oracle’s “tactician-grinder.” In a similar vein, Barker says the Kiwi team “started out thinking that [tactician] Ray Davies wouldn’t have much to do. But in the end, everyone but the helmsman spends time on the handles.” Stored energy being prohibited—no onboard motors, as was the case aboard BMW Oracle’s 90-foot tri—grinders pump up hydraulic pressure for every adjustment. “When trimmers and grinders are in sync,” de Ridder says, “you don’t have to ask them to pump. They know. You work together. It’s just sailing.”
For a couple of years now I’ve been telling people, “nobody knows a thing” about what will actually transpire in the Alcatraz Channel in 2013. It’s a fair bet that we’ll see a match in September between Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA. But it’s also a fact, not a bet, that only 2010—which was a rescue as much as a regatta—was more at the mercy of the fortunes of war. Here I am pontificating, though, and we’re supposed to be dashing around the course, so let’s go…
SAN FRANCISCO BAY ON RACE DAY
The reaching start—yes, a reaching start, which changes almost everything we thought we knew about starting a match race: PRO John Craig will set the entry points to give the port-entry boat a reasonable shot at crossing ahead of starboard-entry, but we’d better stop right here and point out that we now have an entry line at right angles to the starting line and a sequence of only two minutes.
The goal, as always, remains clear air and good boatspeed at the gun, but it’s a new game. At this point it looks like the surest way to win the start is to hook into a leeward overlap and force the other guy to weather of the committee boat: and good luck with that, as the other guy knows the game, too. Note that during the prestart, bowmen like Oracle Team USA’s Brad Webb will be nowhere near the bow. “I’m more of a board-man now,” he says. “Even in 2007, starting was more about the software package than about the bowman’s judgment. Now you can’t have someone out there.”
Instead, Webb works in Oracle’s “third cockpit,” behind the helm, where the sailors are in charge of “boards and fine-tune and pitch.” (New Zealand and Luna Rossa have a single long cockpit; we have yet to see Artemis’s boat #2.) Webb and his grinding partner also help out on everything else. Going into the start, Webb says, “The two of us click out of hydro trim to join in on wing trim. The boats are so quick that the trimmers are reshaping the wings more than we’ve seen mainsail trimmers work any boat, so it’s busy.”
As you might guess, shifting gears on the winches—they have as many as eight gears—becomes an art in itself. And you don’t know ahead of time whether you will have a flying start, with the boat up on foils, or a slow, stalling approach with a leeward boat overlapped and trying to push his opponent to weather. Then, in quick order, the race is on, one way or another, with mere seconds between the start and the first mark, where Webb says, “We want to keep the boat on foils through the bear-away, which is tricky, so we’ll stay clicked into the wing (meaning that the gears of Webb’s winches are engaged with wing-trim components) as long as possible. Then we click out to deploy the gennaker, and already we’re thinking about the gybe.”
- Sequence is only two minutes
- Boats enter from opposite ends of the starting box
- We may see flying starts, with boats foiling toward the line….
- …or slow stalling approaches, with the leeward boat trying to force the windward boat over early
- Trimmers, grinders and the helmsman all work together for a quick transition to full foiling mode on either the final approach or after the gun
BEAR-AWAY MARK & FIRST DOWNWIND LEG
Coming off the short reaching sprint from the start, the boat inside at the bear-away has the best chance of leading into the downwind leg and controlling where and when to make the first gybe. Maneuvers take time, and the thinking is that while these may be agile cats, at a third of a mile per minute you’re yielding a lot of real estate every time you slow down. In the same breath, though, same people will acknowledge that these guys are practicing gybing without coming off the foils...
The irony of a “downwind” leg in 2013 is that the wind will still be in your face. Sure, you will arrive at a point downwind of where you started, but you will get there sooner than the wind you started with. If you’re trimming, you look ahead because you are overtaking the puffs and picking your way through them.
Whether upwind or down, Oracle wing trimmer Dirk “Cheese” de Ridder rides next to helmsman Jimmy Spithill for optimal coordination. Both are driving the boat. “The tactician calls the mode—high or low,” de Ridder says, and then he and Spithill make the necessary adjustments.
According to de Ridder, on an AC45 it is common to pre-set twist and camber and do all the trimming on a given leg with the rotation line (think, traveler). But on an AC72, he says, the wing is much more refined and he can achieve a lot more while sailing in a straight line. “It’s easier to sail through wind ranges,” he says. “The difference is that it’s hydraulic and a lot more user-friendly. You make one adjustment, and other things happen automatically.”
Fixed winglets on the rudders provide a point of relative stability to be trimmed against when the boats are up on foils. Crews adjust the height, rake and cant of the daggerboards to control the boat’s pitch. All board trim is done hydraulically. These being first-
generation designs, there are significant differences, boat to boat, and it’s all backwards, anyway, knowing as we do now that the prohibition on trimmable winglets did not prevent foiling. Helmsmen have buttons at the steering stations for hydraulic fine-tuning of the daggerboards, but trimmable winglets on the rudders—the sensible way to control pitch on a foiling boat—would have made the boats easier to design, easier to control and according to Oracle’s Kostecki, “a lot safer.”
- Speed is your friend on the bear-away. Go slow and you risk capsize as the rig loads up
- Expect full foiling when true wind speeds hit the teens—possibly even before that
- Maneuvers cost time and distance and should be kept to a minimum…
- …unless you can stay up on foils during gybes
- The boats are so fast that apparent wind angles are always well forward, even when sailing downwind, so crews actually look ahead for puffs
LEEWARD GATE & MARK ROUNDINGS
The America’s Cup edition of the Racing Rules of Sailing has a new take on mark roundings in that the inside boat always has rounding rights, no matter who enters the zone first and no matter who is on port or starboard. Things move too fast for all that other stuff we’re used to. The new rules come into play big-time for the first time at the first leeward rounding, where you are invested in re-setting the boards to go upwind—one down and one up—and quickly furling the Code Zero or the gennaker. There are many keys to success, but clearing the headsail and “pumping the oil” at the right moment to get a tight furl is critical.
Meanwhile, from the wing trimmer’s point of view, De Ridder says it’s all about maintaining maximum speed for as long as possible. “If you’re rounding the bottom mark at speeds in the mid-thirties, it’s very achievable to stay on the foils for the rounding. Then you put the boat back in the water.” As for the tacticians, they will not only have to make multiple decisions in mere fractions of a second, they will also likely be helping pump oil as they do so.
- A tight furl on the reaching headsails will be critical not just for speed, but for safety on the upwind leg
- Crews will try to stay on foils as long as possible during the rounding
- Everyone will be spinning handles—including tacticians—as the crews transition the rig and foils from downwind to upwind modes
UPWIND LEG AND WINDWARD GATE
With ebb-tide currents moving up-course for the opening races of the Louis Vuitton series, the outside of the course over by Alcatraz will be favored for the upwind legs, but will it be enough to matter? The inside-outside boatspeed difference will be only a fraction of the 2-knot current.
Later on in the regatta, when races take place during the transition between tides, the inside-outside choices could matter more if there are opposing currents on either side of the course. But it might still be questionable to call a tack short of a boundary. Again, the early races will be a process of discovery. What we don’t expect are major windshifts affecting the course. The sea breeze that flows and sometimes roars through the Golden Gate tends to be stable once it establishes itself, and a bit puffy, and it’s usually cranking by 1300. If it’s already blowing at 0900, expect the Bay to be stinking come race time. If there is fog reaching inside the Bay and then burning off, look for killer puffs at the fog line.
Early in the Louis Vuitton Cup, expect rough conditions—water against wind building lump, lump, lump. But by August 24, you will see peak flood-tide currents of 3-knots-plus moving with the breeze, flattening the waves and lengthening the upwind legs at the same time they shorten the downwind ones. Will the remaining two challengers maybe make a few extra tacks as they struggle for every advantage during the best-of-nine Louis Vuitton finals series? I think so.
- It’s unlikely any team will sail in full foiling mode upwind
- Tidal currents will run strongest on the Alcatraz side of the course
- During the Louis Vuitton finals, peak flood currents of 3-plus-knots will flatten the seas
- Flood currents will also lengthen windward legs—possibly encouraging tacking duels among the boats struggling to prevail as challenger
LEEWARD MARK & FINISH
This year’s Cup races will all finish on a reach. The final dogleg doesn’t need a fancy explanation: turn right and go fast. That said, if things are close, the homestretch could get very interesting. The windward boat can put an overtaking leeward boat in its wind shadow. But then again, the leeward boat will be able to make the final sprint at a hotter gybing angle, and of course, windward boat stays clear. Imagine the luffing matches you see during a typical spinnaker parade taking place at 40-plus knots.
- If the boats are close, the drag race to the finish could be a nail-biter
- The inside boat at the mark rounding will likely be able to block the wind of the outside boat to leeward, but…
- ...If the windward boat is overtaking, luffing is legal
Got the picture? The warriors have gathered. Battle lines are drawn. History will be made. New Zealand is favored over Luna Rossa and Artemis to get a crack at the defender, but in truth, nobody knows a thing.
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Photos courtesy of Guilain Grenier/AC34 and Chris Cameron/ETNZ
Illustrations by Steve Stankiewicz