If the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco represented a cataclysmic moment for a new form of sailing, the 35th Cup not only took “foiling” to a ridiculously refined level of performance, it created an entirely new archetype of professional sailor: high-performance Olympians like winning Emirates Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling, who will likely dominate the elite tier of Cup sailors for a generation or more.
The remarkably calm and steady Burling even treated the closing press conference as just one more step in a journey, while recognizing, humbly, that he was only part of a bigger team: all sharing the burden—and now elation—of a victory that laid to rest the bitter 9-8 defeat less than four years earlier at the hands of Jimmy Spithill and Oracle Team USA.
“All the training has paid off,” said Burling, a foiling Moth world champion and two-time Olympic medalist in the 49er class. “It just shows you what an incredible bunch we have here. When we get put under the pressure, when we get asked questions, we answer them on the water. That speaks wonders to our team.”
As for Burling’s winning AC50 catamaran, global headlines pointed to Emirates Team New Zealand’s “cyclors,” cyclist sailors, who loaded up their boat’s hydraulic systems with their powerful legs, as the core innovation that gave the Kiwis the strength to drop Defender Oracle Team USA 8-1 in June’s finals. However, more astute observers identified the cyclors as just one cog in a well-oiled machine that Grant Dalton’s revamped team developed in secret in New Zealand during a mostly light wind 2016-17 summer—although the in-line, low drag arrangement did seem the epitome of efficiency compared to the crouched, arm-straining grinder scenario used by the other teams. (Bottom line: more power equals more ability to adjust wings and daggerboards, which in turn, equals faster maneuvers and more straight-line speed for the power-hungry ACC50 catamarans.)
Also receiving a lot of media attention was the “Game Boy” style control unit New Zealand’s wing trimmer, catamaran guru Glenn Ashby, relied on to mystically morph the shape and twist of the team’s wing, while rarely adjusting a mostly hidden wing sheet—in stark contrast to the other teams, which moved the entirety of the wing in and out on a sheet and hydraulically driven winch, causing dramatic swings in power and adding to the instability of the hyper-sensitive AC50 catamaran foilers.
Then there were the radically kinked, long and thin daggerboards the Kiwis deployed, which seemed to be the final explanation for the Kiwi’s domination. As Oracle struggled to match its more conventional L-foils to the light and fickle breezes that marked the finals, New Zealand’s blades provided both high lift in the lulls and low drag when the boats were pressed well above 20 knots of boatspeed: a deadly combination.
Interestingly, these foils were controlled not by the helmsman, as was the case with the rest of the fleet, but via a touch-screen device managed by Burling’s longtime 49er crew, Blair Tuke. According to reports, New Zealand’s partnership with the Italian Luna Rossa syndicate in 2013 led to the development of Tuke’s control unit: a software-driven autopilot of sorts, that revealed the angle of the foil for any given moment. Tuke only had to match this with his fingers to direct the foils to the correct articulation and produce the super-stable flight that allowed Burling to throw the boat around with confidence in the pre-start and around the course—that and focus on things like speed and tactics.
“No fear, and teamwork,” said Land Rover BAR technical director Andy Claughton when asked to sum up the reasons why the Kiwis won. “Sailing these boats is like balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger. They developed an open, dihedral foil that needed a free set of hands to manage. This is back of the envelope stuff. Their designed foil tips made for a dramatic reduction in drag in the lighter conditions. If Oracle was foiling five degrees lower, they probably had five percent more drag.”
Which is not to say that in Claughton’s analysis ETNZ’s success did not also represent a triumph of seamanship. According to Claughton: “You had three very competent sailors (Burling, Tuke, Ashby) who said ‘we are going to go for this’ and as Glenn says, ‘throw the ball as far as we could and work like hell to try and reach it.’ They expanded their minds to a point where they were happy to go for it each day.”
Beyond that, given the nature of this kind of sailing, it should come as no surprise that the 35th America’s Cup also marked the fulfillment of a transition that began when the 20-something Nathan Outteridge became the first of a new generation of foiling skippers to be tapped for a Cup campaign in the previous cycle, where he quickly replaced veteran skipper Terry Hutchinson at the helm with Sweden’s Artemis.
Up until then, skippers like Hutchinson had followed a proven pathway of match-racing in monohull keelboats and winning all kinds of important regattas before finally leading Cup campaigns of their own in their 40s and even 50s. And while Outteridge proved this model wrong in the 34th Cup, the shift to even smaller foiling catamarans for the 35th Cup truly brought what Volvo Ocean Race CEO Mark Turner calls the “Olympic currency” to the top of the CV for Cup skippers.
In fact, for all their skills, Frank Cammas of France, Japan’s Dean Barker, Oracle’s Spithill and even Land Rover BAR’s Sir Ben Ainslie are all outsiders when it comes to the high-performance scene Outteridge and Burling had been playing in so successfully for the past decade: a setting in which they have spent their entire adult lives making split-second, accurate decisions while driving small, skittish craft at 20-plus knots. This, in turn, puts them at a real disadvantage when it comes to driving a boat like AC50 on a short, tight racecourse like the one in Bermuda.
“The style of people involved is a new generation of pilots,” explained John Bertrand, the skipper who led Australia II to break the longest winning streak in sporting history, winning the Cup in 1983. “The wing trimmer is steering the boat through the air. In this environment, no words are being said with these young sailors. It’s between the pilot and the person steering the boat through the air.”
As for the Cup itself, though the die has seemingly been cast in terms of the type of sailor at the helm, at press time the future of pretty much everything else remained a mystery until New Zealand makes some of the big decision on boat type and nationality rules.
Team New Zealand was the only team not to sign Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison’s protocol for the 36th America’s Cup, and the inconsistency and long gaps between events has challenged efforts to make a sustainable commercial product out of the Cup. That said, after winning the trophy for the third time, ETNZ manager Grant Dalton isn’t taking the responsibility lightly, and is particularly sensitive to what he believed to be the unfair advantage given to the Defender by the framework in the 35th Cup. The New Zealand government has already put down a $5 million deposit on the next Cup, and Dalton has plans to make a priority of cleaning up the sporting aspect of the event.
“I don’t believe that you own the America’s Cup,” Dalton said, even as the champagne was still raining down behind him after his team’s historic win. “You are a custodian. The rules should not be written to make it easier for you to hold onto it...if you’re good enough to hold onto it, you will hold onto it.”
Beyond that, a stronger nationality percentage for the teams is certainly on the table according to Dalton, but he said it must be handled with care. Dalton has also not yet commented on whether the Cup will stick with cats or if monohulls will once again be used. For what it’s worth, the Kiwis have said they will not reveal the technologies that allowed them to precisely manipulate their wing and foils: a tip-off that foiling multihulls are a strong contender.
Meanwhile, though the winners have said they will act quickly to move the 36th America’s Cup forward, the world has a lot to digest from this fast-paced series where eight-minute races and even entire series seemed to be finished in the blink of an eye.
The reception in Auckland, complete with ticker tape parades, was at the level one would expect from all the great historical events in a country. Somehow, in the torrent of cold rain that fell on that day, the team felt the elation of winning all over again. With canoes filled with Maori warriors and blue-collar families in bright orange life jackets as the backdrop, the often stern Dalton spoke for his team when he said, “I’m just really privileged and lucky and incredibly proud, frankly.”