A look back at how we got to full-foiling cats in Bermuda
Ever since the schooner America won the “100 Guinea Cup” fated to bear its name, the America’s Cup has been as much about technology and change as actual sailing.
America itself, for example, won in large part thanks not only to her then radical hull form, but her cutting-edge cotton sails. Similarly, in the decades that followed, designers and builders like Starling Burgess and Nathanael Herreshoff were in the forefront with respect to everything from aluminum spars to winch technology and the switch from gaff to Bermuda rigs.
That said, the pace of change in the America’s Cup has been far from constant. While it’s true, for example, that a number of dramatic innovations marked the three-decade 12 Meter era—including Olin Stephen’s decision to separate the rudder from the keel aboard the 1967 Defender Intrepid, and, of course, Australia II’s winged keel in 1983—the rate of change was more evolutionary than revolutionary, in keeping with the mindset of late 20th century sailing in general. Not so, however, with the advent of the America’s Cup multihull era, where predictability and the status quo can be as hard to find as ballast on the boats themselves.
The first time America’s Cup competition saw two hulls (not to mention a then wildly radical wing sail) was when Dennis Connor skippered the 60ft catamaran Stars & Stripes against Michael Fay’s winged monohull New Zealand in 1988 (See Foiling and Flying). Then, just to make sure the sense of whiplash was complete, America’s Cup organizers promptly threw the entire multihull concept straight into the garbage and went back to monohull IACC class racing. So much for continuity!
The next time the America’s Cup burst its monohull bonds was in 2010 when the hostility between the Defender, Alinghi, and challenger Larry Ellison became so contentious that any kind of mutually satisfying agreement proved impossible. This, in turn, prompted a “Deed of Gift” challenge, whereby the Cup reverted to its pre-industrial roots and both parties set about building the fastest boats possible with an LOA of 90ft or less. In the challenger’s case, the result was the megacat Alinghi V; in the Defender’s, the BMW Oracle Racing mega-tri that went on to win the series in straight races.
Fortunately, in the wake of this PR disaster—albeit a disaster that spawned one of the most extraordinary sailing vessels the world has ever known—the various parties involved decided enough was enough. They also decided to go with multihulls again in an effort to, as Oracle Team USA principal Russell Coutts somewhat inelegantly put it, move the Cup from the “Flintstone generation” to one represented by the more hip Facebook.
Alas, for all the planning that went into it, this Cup cycle was not without its controversies, so that in the end only three challengers decided it was worth throwing their hats into the ring. It was also, despite Emirates Team New Zealand’s decision to launch the Cup into full-foiling mode (against the rulemakers’ best efforts to prevent it)a surprisingly dull affair (boring blowouts are seemingly a real danger whenever a multihull appears on the AC stage), until Oracle Team USA and skipper Jimmy Spithill finally managed to get their full-foiling act together and stage one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. Bottom line: the 34th America’s Cup was not only one of the most exciting America’s Cups ever, it was also the most revolutionary.
Which brings us to the 35th America’s Cup regatta, set to begin May 26 with the start of the challenger elimination series on Bermuda’s Great Sound. Obviously, this regatta has not been without its share of controversy, not the least of which was the decision to abandon San Francisco Bay for the sake of defending a trophy currently in U.S. possession in a foreign country. You could also argue there is some question as to how truly special the racing will be given that the current generation of ACC 50-footers is not all that different from the full-foiling AC45s that have already been whizzing about the past couple of years as part of the America’s Cup World series. Time will tell. Let’s all hope for an exciting regatta that’s worth the trip to Bermuda (for those who can afford it).
As for the future of multihulls and the Cup, that too remains to be seen. On the one hand, if Oracle Team USA prevails, full-foiling catamaran racing is a near certainty. However, if the Cup should change hands, especially if the Kiwis get it, the exact nature of the future of America’s Cup competition could be very much up in the air. For now, though, let’s just enjoy the show, and marvel at the sailboats the oldest trophy in international sports continues to produce, not to mention the men and women who build and sail them. For complete coverage, including real-time reporting and analysis, go to sailmagazine.com/racing/americas-cup.
MHS: Summer 2017