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Not Just a Wing

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Back in 1851, when the schooner America got things going by winning the America's Cup in a race around the Isle of Wight, it was widely assumed it was her then-radical hull shape that did the trick. In fact, it was largely the result of her superior sails.

Fast forward to 1983, the year John Bertrand aboard Australia II won the Cup from Dennis Conner and the New York Yacht Club. Conventional wisdom held that because of Australia II’s then-radical winged keel, the American team never really stood a chance. In hindsight, however, the win has been increasingly attributed not only to a fast boat, but also to good tactics and seamanship.

And now we have “the wing.” From the moment BMW Oracle Racing’s USA began eating into Alinghi 5’s lead on the first beat in Race One, the talk has been all about the wing. To hear the disgruntled ex-keeper of the Cup Ernesto Bertarelli tell it—not to mention the various talking heads and bloggers out there—the 33rd America’s Cup competition was almost a foregone conclusion. But I’m not so sure.

For one, let’s give some credit to USA helmsman James Spithill. As much as the wing, what struck me about the two recent Cup races was the way Spithill got the big tri up on its leeward ama—right where it should be for maximum speed—and stuck it there, pretty much the whole way around the course.

One, two, three kilometers astern, Alinghi 5 flopped all over the place, often sitting half dead with both hulls in the water—but not Spithill. USA just kept steaming along, at a near constant heel angle, chewing up the miles.

And don’t kid yourself, this was no mean feat. At the start, when she stalled as Alinghi 5 went motoring off toward the first mark, USA showed she was more than capable of going slow if handled incorrectly. But Spithill and company kept their cool, got their boat moving and then stuck it up on that ama—and the rest was history.

Maybe it’s because I’m a fairly passive driver, but seeing the youngest winning skipper in Cup history get his boat into the groove and keep it there was pretty impressive. The minute and a half before his boat crossed the starting line must have been the longest in Larry Ellison’s life. But, watching Spithill, you’d never have guessed there was any pressure. He just popped that boat up on its ama and kept it there, like she was riding on a fixed track.

It’s important to remember the fastest boat doesn’t always win the race. Back at the dawn of the last century, Capt. Nat Herreshoff’s cutting-edge Constitution lost out to another older design, Capt. Nat’s Columbia, during the trials to see who would defend in 1901. At the time, Herreshoff was roundly criticized for having designed a loser. But what the yachting press failed to appreciate was the fact that Herreshoff’s favorite skipper, three-time Cup winner Charlie Barr, was on the older boat.

Two years later, in more capable hands, Constitution repeatedly thrashed Columbia in the run-up to the to the 1903 defense against Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock III. Although Herreshoff’s final Cup boat, Reliance, went on to actually defend, the designer was largely vindicated for what had previously been considered one of his greatest failures.

Which brings us to the big tri, USA: who would have thought such a gigantic craft could be so completely overshadowed by its rig? Granted, the wing was a “game changer,” but let's not forget the engineering marvel on which it was perched.

Maybe I’m biased because SAIL and contributing writer Ian Campbell called the race well in advance based on the superiority of USA’s hull design, but I like to think the boat had something to do with it too. (Because of the nature of publishing, we had to go to press with call back in mid-January, when the wing was not yet a certainly, at least not publicly.)

This is one powerful, slippery boat, repeatedly tweaked through hundreds of hours on the water so that it is now one of the fastest sailing machines created by man.

"The only downer is we don’t get to sail the boat (anymore). We all really look forward to sailing every day. It’s a very special boat and so rewarding to sail," Spithill said at a press conference after the second race.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see what would happen if the team members aboard BMW Oracle stepped their soft-sail rig and the two boats went out and raced for a case of beer? Somehow, I can’t see the boats’ owners going along with it, but it sure would be neat.

A game changer? Sure. A magic bullet that made the 33rd America’s Cup a foregone conclusion? Hmmm… Even a magic bullet needs a good gun and a damn good marksman if it’s going to hit its target.

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