Racing

An America's Cup Convert

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Count me among the converted. 

From the moment Larry Ellison, Russell Coutts, Jimmy Spithill et al. won the 33rd America’s Cup Regatta in Valencia, Spain, a little over three years ago, I’ve been concerned about the Cup’s future. Those concerns were seemingly validated when Team Oracle and the Golden Gate Yacht Club announced the current Cup format, with its winged multihulls and super-slick media coverage.

Call me a dinosaur, but I just wasn’t that impressed with what I saw of the America’s Cup World Series. I get it: the AC45 is a fast boat. Carbon fiber is cool. So are wings. When an AC45 capsizes there’s a big splash, and it’s a long way down. Still, for real “match racing”—complete with cutthroat dial-ups, tacking duels and tight, tactical mark roundings—I’ll take monohulls any day.

It was the same thing when the four syndicates with the financial wherewithal to actually compete began launching their 72-footers. Again, I get it: the AC72 is a fast boat. Carbon fiber is cool... Still, try as I might, I just couldn’t get that excited about the new format.

Then my job forced me to dig a little deeper, to learn a bit more about how these boats work: now I’m convinced the sailing set to take place on San Francisco Bay will be nothing less than extraordinary. 

Chief among my reasons for this are the sailors. To the uninitiated, sailing an AC72 consists of little more than getting the boat up on foils and then barreling along hell-bent for leather, until you reach to the next mark. The reality, though, is that straight-line speed is only part of the equation. To win the 34th America’s Cup, you’ll also need excellent boat-handling skills. 

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that the fastest boat wins the Cup. It’s a technology race, and in the end, all that tacking and gybing is little more than a kind of waterborne Kabuki theater.

But not this time around. Screw up a tack, gybe or mark rounding, mess up the transition between foiling and non-foiling modes, and you’re not talking about losing a few boat lengths; you’re talking football fields worth of distance. As Oracle’s performance director Ian “Fresh” Burns told me recently, “You can lose 100 meters in a gybe easily, maybe 200, and if you do four or five gybes on a downwind leg, that’s 500 meters, that’s half a kilometer lost.”  

Complementing this boathandling challenge is the technological challenge of making it possible for 11 mere mortals to handle an extraordinarily powerful vessel as nimbly as if it were a dinghy. The results have been increasingly sophisticated control systems, incorporating the latest in marine hydraulics, electrical actuation and direct-drive linkages. These systems are, in turn, being refined through a combination of mind-bogglingly complex performance analysis on shore and seat-of-the-pants sailing on the water. In the end, coordinating the efforts of the crews, the builders and the systems designers may prove just as important, if not more so, than the shape of the boats’ wings and foils. This is a Cup in which the “fastest” boat could very easily lose.  

Of course, some traditionalists may say this ain’t the same as “real” sailing. But they’d be wrong: think of the oh-so-fragile riveted Duraluminum masts of the 1930s; of the sloop America and her revolutionary bow and cotton sails. What the four syndicates are doing in San Francisco right now is no different than when Capt. Nat Herreshoff was creating the cutting-edge multi-speed winches that helped tame the enormous rig on the 1903 defender Reliance

Granted, in all likelihood we will not see the same close-quarters racing we saw during the monohull era. (Although you can never tell when it comes to the Cup.) Nonetheless, there will still be plenty to keep fans on the edges of their seats. So do yourself a favor: go online and check out as much video of these boats as you can to familiarize yourself with how they work. (Here at SAIL, we will also be including an extensive 34th America’s Cup preview in our July issue to help you get up to speed.) Then, when the actual racing begins, take advantage of all that super-slick media coverage to get an up-close look at these boats in action. I guarantee it will be worth the effort—not least because the boats are so fast, wings and carbon fiber are so cool and when an AC72 capsizes...

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