Learning to Fly

Sailing a multihull is just like sailing a monohull, right? Wrong. If that was the case, there is simply no way that Alinghi would have flipped Foncia, the high-octane ORMA 60 that the team had been using as a training platform for the 33rd America’s Cup, which will be a Deed of Gift Challenge between Golden Gate Yacht Club’s BMW Oracle Racing (BOR) and Societe Nautique
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Sailing a multihull is just like sailing a monohull, right? Wrong. If that was the case, there is simply no way that Alinghi would have flipped Foncia, the high-octane ORMA 60 that the team had been using as a training platform for the 33rd America’s Cup, which will be a Deed of Gift Challenge between Golden Gate Yacht Club’s BMW Oracle Racing (BOR) and Societe Nautique de Geneve’s Alinghi. Currently, the “where” and the “when” are being wrangled in Justice Cahn’s courtroom, but for the first time in months there is a glimmer of hope: The sailors have taken to the water aboard multihulls, giving Cup enthusiasts a glimpse at the exciting, and unorthodox, match-racing event that will constitute the next Cup.

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But what is so different about multihull sailing that requires some of the best sailors in the world – men like Russell Coutts, Brad Butterworth, James Spithill, and Ed Baird — to rethink how they sail? For starters, multihulls do not track through a tack or a gybe like a monohull as they do not have a keel, which also reduces their mass, making it much easier to stall the boat as it passes through the wind. Secondly, the sheer forces involved, as measured in load on sheets, running rigging, and standing rigging, are far greater. Also, the sheer speeds at which big, hopped-up multihulls sail completely change the rules of the trimming, driving, and tactics. For example, multihulls sail so fast that small wind shifts become largely irrelevant as the boat’s apparent wind pulls the wind forward of its beam – much like an ultra-powerful monohull such as a Volvo Open 70 – making the game more about sailing fast from one zone of good air pressure to the next, rather than fighting for incremental gains attained by nailing small shifts.

These later two points have a huge effect on the role of the trimmer and the helmsman. On rarefied monohulls such as ACC boats, trimming has become an ultra-refined art; drivers typically concentrate on driving perfectly straight, allowing the trimmers to make adjustments as the rig negotiates one small wind shift after another. Not so with powerful multihulls. Here, experienced sailors have referred to grinding as a wrestling match with the sails; moreover, instead of grinding efforts coming in small doses of intense exercise, multihull grinding is an endurance contest. As a result, a multihull helmsman spends his time adjusting for significant shifts and transitioning from one good pressure zone to the next.

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Since the rules of sailing have changed so significantly with this latest Deed of Gift Challenge, both BOR and Alinghi have enlisted the expertise of multihull pros. On the Swiss payroll is Foncia skipper Alain Gautier, who is contending both with his damaged ORMA 60, and helping the Swiss to sail friendlier (e.g., how not to capsize) on Swiss boss Ernesto Bertarelli’s Jo Richards/Sebestian Schmidt-designed lake racer catamaran (a boat that Bertarelli raced prior to shifting to the D35 class), which the team is currently using on Lake Geneva. BOR has taken the more dramatic tack, hiring the services of legendary trimaran sailor Franck Cammas, skipper of the ORMA 60 Groupama II. Moreover, Mr. Ellison and Mr. Coutts have enlisted Tornado sailors Glenn Ashby, Roman Hugara, and Charlie Ogletree. Best yet, they have spent this past week attempting to match race Groupama II against Pascal Bidegorry’s ORMA 60 Banque Populaire, which is where these stunning images were generated.

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Both teams are also training on Extreme 40 catamarans. Alinghi has entered this summer’s iShare’s Cup as an opportunity to race competitively before the real showdown commences. No word yet from BOR as to if they plan on going head-to-head with Alinghi in the iShares, or if they will simply wait for the real deal.

An interesting question thus emerges: Should the teams design tactically minded boats, or should their designs be aimed at straight-line speed? Speculation has it that the magnificent tacking duels, both in the starting sequence and on the weather legs, will be a thing of the past in the multihulls, but the truth remains that multihulls boast such stunning accelerations out of their tacks and gybes that the rulebooks will have to be written, as no one has ever attempted high-end match racing on something as powerful as a 90-foot cat. Also, since the 33rd Cup will be a Deed of Gift affair, the courses are much different than last summer’s event. Two races will be fought out on twice-around windward-leeward courses that are 40 miles long, and a single race shall be contested on a 39-mile course around an equilateral triangle. So, it is likely that designers will focus more on straight-line speed than starting-line hijacks, but the jury is still out on this decision. Stay tuned.

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While the tactical cunning of a wind-up is likely out for this next Cup, pundits and enthusiasts can at least look forward to races where the lead is constantly changing hands. Gone are the days of ultra-refinement where a 10-boatlength lead is unassailable; here, a 10-boatlength lead can be crushed in seconds. Also, tech geeks such as this scribe can look forward to interesting new innovations such as wingmasts that rotate and possibly cant to weather (how cool is that?). While most Cup enthusiasts and sailors simply want to get the 33rd Cup over with and quickly return to multi-campaign racing, we can at least keep our fingers crossed for potentially influential rig innovations. Also, watching match racing at 30+ knots will certainly be something new and exciting.

Posted: April 11, 2008

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