A Revolutionary America’s Cup Boat

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With much fanfare and the best computer graphics money can buy, Emirates Team New Zealand has now released its plans for the new full-foiling America’s Cup 75 class monohull to be used for the 36th America’s Cup in 2021.

Unfortunately, while I know I’m supposed to be excited and impressed, I gotta admit, my first, almost visceral, reaction to this thing was that it is strangely evocative of the Martian tripods in Stephen Spielberg’s 2005 movie, “War of the Worlds”—and I’m sorry, but that ain’t good.

Is it just the author, or is there a strange resemblance between these two machines?

Is it just the author, or is there a strange resemblance between these two machines?

I know, I know. I’m probably being a stick-in-the-mud dinosaur here. Or if not that, then at least one of those grumpy old men who in their Flintstone-like conservatism refuse to move away from the town of Bedrock. But there it is.

I was recently interviewed by a reporter for the “New York Times” who, among other things, asked me why I thought it was that sailors with all the money in the world still bother sailing maxi monohulls. These are guys, after all, who can afford to buy literally anything they want—jet airplanes, sports cars, hovercraft, full-foiling multihulls—and yet they persist in spending millions of dollars on contraptions aboard which it’s a big deal whenever they get a chance to go faster than your run-of-the-mill bicycle, with the cyclist not even trying that hard.

My answer was that there is an intrinsic beauty to a monohull sailboat that is simply without equal, that the act of employing a displacement monohull and soft sails to leverage the power of the wind and waves simply can’t be beat, no matter how “old-fashioned” it may seem—and therein I believe lies the problem with both the new AC75 monohull and full-foiling in the Cup in general. They are aesthetically, at least, devoid of soul.

If you really wanted to get around the track at Churchill Downs in a timely manner, you could certainly find a better way to do it than on a horse, but where would be the fun in that? Same thing with any number of other sports out there in which the technology is deliberately “dumbed down,” as it were, to keep things interesting and retain the human element. Why not make baseballs springier and bats more powerful so that every game becomes a kind of nine-inning home run derby? Wouldn’t that be exciting?

Alas, in the 36th America’s Cup, although we’ve gone from two hulls to one, the basic dynamic remains the same—boatspeed at all costs and aesthetics and traditional seamanship be damned. Granted these boats now carry Code 0s that will purportedly be used in light air and afford spectators the chance to see the occasional sail change (maybe). But they’re still going to be beating or close-reaching no matter what the true wind angle. Then again, let’s not kid ourselves, unrolling a Code 0 is pretty tame stuff compared to setting, gybing or dousing an actual spinnaker. ETNZ also claims that “the classic pre-starts of the America's Cup are set to make an exciting comeback,” but I’ll believe that when I see it.

For the record, I really, really hope I’m wrong. I hope the 36th Cup is a smashing success. The very idea of another weird, boring and ultimately unsatisfying America’s Cup breaks my heart. But again, there it is. I’m skeptical. (Although the fact that the new AC boat also seems to bear a slight, but still very real resemblance to the universal symbol of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, does give one hope…)

Is the America’s Cup being touched by his noodly appendage?

Is the America’s Cup being touched by his noodly appendage?

As a kind of corollary, at the same time the America’s Cup continues trying to find itself, the old 12 Meter class is going gangbusters: with more and more of the old boats being brought back into better-than-new condition and a series of regattas currently in the works, culminating in a World Championship regatta in 2018. Same with the old J Class, which just held its first World Championship regatta in Newport, Rhode Island.

Does anyone know or care about the fates of the AC72s or the AC50s that raced on San Francisco Bay or in Bermuda? Does anyone expect to be sailing these same boats in the decades to come? Exactly. Unlike their predecessors, these are not so much boats as machines—and for a sailor, at least, that makes all the difference in the world. 

November 2017

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