Thoughts on Emirates Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup victory

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What to make of the 35th America’s Cup? After all the hype, it was darn close to a sweep. Not only that, but the fact we were witnessing a rout in the making seemed pretty obvious after just the first couple of races.

If the wind had ever figured out a way to climb out of the low teens—max—things might have been a bit more suspenseful. The winner, Emirates Team New Zealand, did after all capsize in heavy air while racing against Land Rover BAR only a week or so earlier in the challenger playoffs, while the Defender, Oracle Team USA, seemed undaunted by big wind.

However, Bermuda remained true to early-summer form, and the placid aquamarine waters of the island’s Great Sound stayed just that—placid—conditions in which ETNZ was clearly firing on all cylinders, only losing once in the entire first-to-seven series.

Speaking of Bermuda, for all the carefully orchestrated publicity, there were reportedly hotel vacancies aplenty right through to the bitter end, and neither the crowds nor the ratings were exactly out of this world. A contrast to the masses of people spontaneously trooping down to the waterfront for a glimpse of the “the comeback” during the 34th America’s Cup couldn’t have been greater (although on the plus side, if you care about such things, there were megayachts a-plenty).

So what to make of AC35? I suppose the only answer is that despite the crowds, sizable finish deltas and still unconscionable decision (at least in this writer’s estimation) to stage an “American” defense in a tax haven hundreds of miles away from the United States, what Cup fans recently witnessed was in its own way a comeback as great as the one engineered by Oracle Team USA in 2013.

The ETNZ cat was as highly maneuverable as it was lightning fast

The ETNZ cat was as highly maneuverable as it was lightning fast

Not only that, it may very well represent one of the great feats of design and naval architecture—right up there with Australia II’s winged keel and the schooner America itself. Lest we forget, New Zealand is not a large country, much of the population was seriously questioning the wisdom of continuing its sailing community’s decades-long obsession with the Auld Mug, and the Kiwis were up against some of the deepest pockets in the universe in the form of Larry Ellison.

Nonetheless, they prevailed through a tremendously sophisticated combination of Kiwi ingenuity and know-how, aided by the design chops of France’s Guillaume Verdier and turbo-charged by a heaping helping of passion that was almost beyond words. Can there be any doubt that the Kiwis, in addition to being outstanding sailors, are now the best high-performance boatbuilders in the world?

Most obvious, of course, was the team’s innovative use of bicycles, as opposed to hand-powered grinders, to create the necessary hydraulic power to control their boat’s rudders, daggerboards and wings. A number of other teams claimed to have considered the idea, but only the Kiwis actually put the concept into practice—a move that in retrospect seems almost self-evident in its efficacy. (Ah, the wisdom of hindsight and Monday morning quarterbacking!)

Interestingly, the decision to go with bicycles was probably not just based on technological considerations, but basic seamanship. Imagine going for a bike ride on a heeling monohull in any kind of a seaway, the way the Swedes did aboard the 12 Meter Sverige back in 1977. Not fun. (Although in the case of the 12s, the practice was also formally banned afterward.) The 35th America’s Cup, however, took place aboard multihulls on the sheltered waters of Great Sound, where they made all the sense in the world. Ya gotta be a sailor, not just a number cruncher, to appreciate that.

Same thing with windage: at first blush, having four guys sitting up tall and proud on a set of fixed bicycle seats seems nothing less than idiotic given these are boats that regularly operate in conditions where they’re subject to 50-plus knots of apparent wind. But just look at what happened when the guys on the pedals all hunkered down together like the riders doing a team time trial in the Tour de France. Not only that, while the grinders on the other teams did their utmost to remain on their knees, whenever it came time to hit the handles especially hard they would often stand up—promptly throwing any aerodynamic advantage they might have had out the window. Again, you have to be an experienced, not to mention savvy sailor to anticipate something like that.

Of course, once ETNZ made the mental leap to bikes, it opened up a whole world of other possibilities given that creating the necessary hydraulic pressure (which was pretty much all most of the grinders were doing from start to finish) to operate the boat’s wing and foils was no longer an issue given the vastly greater strength of a human being’s legs compared to his or her arms.

Most obvious of these secondary innovations was the use of a toggle-based “Nintendo” style trimming device aboard ETNZ, as opposed to the combination of sheet and buttons found on the other boats. Presumably, ETNZ could afford to be more profligate in burning off hydraulic pressure as trimmer Glenn Ashby—the only crewman left over from the team’s defeat in San Francisco—labored to exact as much power out of the wing as possible. Soon after the Kiwis arrived the other teams couldn’t help noticing how much emphasis Ashby seemed to be placing on adjusting twist: a critical component when sailing to windward, which is essentially what boats going as fast as an ACC50 do 100 percent of the time, whether on a run or beat.

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Another big difference in using bicycles is that it freed up the sailors’ hands. This, in turn, allowed Blair Tuke—who in partnership with ETNZ helmsman Peter Burling won a gold medal in the 49er class at the Rio Olympics—to function as a kind of an independent foil trimmer. With this task taken off Burling’s plate, he was able to focus exclusively on his forte, driving and tactics, to deadly effect.

The exact nature of Tuke’s control system remains a secret. Thus far, all we’ve seen is him making small adjustments to a compact controller mounted on his handlebars while he was pedaling his heart out like the rest of the grinders. But you can rest assured it is a product of untold hundreds of hours of design and engineering.

Beyond that, while ETNZ’s boat and wing didn’t look that different from the competition (in terms of gross morphology the ACC50 is essentially a one-design) the countless hoses, actuators, valves and other bits and pieces that made everything work were obviously nothing less than superlative in both their design and construction. Although all the teams in Bermuda put on an incredible display of seamanship, Burling’s ability to hurl his boat around the track stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Early on, for example, a primary goal for all the teams was staying up on their foils from start to finish, sailing what became known as a “dry lap.” But while all the teams managed to (for the most part) figure this out, Burling and company managed to take full-foiling sailboat racing to a whole different level through their superb maneuverability. It was like all the teams succeeded in becoming competent speed skaters, but only ETNZ could skate at speed while also shooting slap shots.

Finally, while all the other teams elected to go with fairly conventional L-shaped foils, the horizontal components of ETNZ’s foils exhibited a distinct “kink,” thereby (presumably) providing them with an extra measure of stability. In short, from stem to stern, there was not a single bit of ETNZ’s boat that wasn’t submitted to the closest analysis and/or scrutiny.

“We thought outside of the square, and we did it our way,” said ETNZ CEO Grant Dalton, one of the most visible faces of the team that was on the losing end of Oracle’s phenomenal comeback in AC34. “After San Francisco, we knew we couldn’t out-spend other teams here, so we had to out-think everyone. We just wanted to see what we could come up with, and we have achieved some truly amazing things that have been revolutionary in this sport.”

“What happened in 2013 was a brutal experience for everyone involved, to be so close was extremely disappointing and is something that will live with all of us for the rest of our lives,” said Ashby. “To be able to come here a few years later and pull off an unbelievable victory has really redeemed that situation for New Zealand, and it feels like justice has prevailed.”

Which is not to say, the sailors didn’t have a part to play as well. On the one hand, Burling, who along with Tuke has absolutely dominated the hyper-competitive 49er class in recent years, sailed a magnificent regatta in every sense of the word—a feat that is all the more impressive given he is only 26 years old, making him the youngest America’s Cup winner in history.

On the other, the entire crew did an equally magnificent job of both working up the boat during training and then getting around the racetrack as quickly as they did when the chips were down. While it’s true that the three guys beside Ashby, Tuke and Burling served primarily as protein-fired pumps, the obvious coordination involved in running the boat through tacks, gybes and whatever tactical situations Burling had to deal with was nothing to sneeze at.

Along these same lines, a shout-out to the shore crews is also richly deserved, not just with ETNZ but all the syndicates. Between swapping out foiling “packages” based on each day’s sailing conditions and effecting repairs on everything from shredded fairings to shredded wings and the slightly smashed hull on Britain’s Land Rover BAR after it crashed into Softbank Team Japan, theirs is an unsung job that is as essential to a successful campaign as any of the sailors.

So hats off to Emirates New Zealand. While there’s no denying AC35 was a bit odd—not to mention somewhat disconcerting in its obvious commerciality (Bermuda? Seriously?)—the efforts of the winner represent one of the truly supreme efforts of history in terms of both naval architecture and seamanship. Looking ahead, this is a bunch that’s gonna be damn hard to beat! 

MHS: Fall 2017

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