High-speed catamarans, and races so close to shore you can hear the screaming onboard. Welcome to the new-look America’s Cup, where success is measured not just by how far you push your boat, but whether you come out of it in one piece.
The San Francisco Bay was typically frosty on a blustery weekday in October. The wind had whipped the choppy water into whitecaps across which criss-crossed a yacht resembling a fighter jet, helmed by the America’s Cup champion and wunderkind skipper, Jimmy Spithill.
Measuring 72ft long, with a carbon-fibre-structured ‘wing sail’ 131ft high, the boat has a racing car’s unbridled speed and crash potential. In the gilded, history of the America’s Cup series, in which it will be raced next summer, there has never been anything like it.
“The overall performance of these boats compared to five years ago is staggering,” says Dirk Kramer, a lead designer with Oracle Racing.
“Five years ago you had keel boats going upwind in 9 knots [16kph]. You’re now going upwind in 20 knots (37kph). It’s like running the 100m sprint in the Olympics in 10 seconds and four years later running it in five. It doesn’t happen very often in sport.”
Welcome to the new-look America’s Cup, an attempt by those in charge of sport’s oldest trophy series to become both television and crowd friendly, to bust out of the rarefied gin-soaked halls of yacht clubbery and appeal to a broader base. And it starts with the AC72.
“It’s a little bit like going to the moon,” says Spithill. “You don’t really know what you’re going to get on the way.”
Exhibit A: that fateful day in October, when a gust of wind hit the powerful wing sail hard on a turn and the front tips of the hulls dug into the water, beginning a slow capsize that sailors call ‘pitch-poling’. The helmets and armoured Kevlar vests the 11 crew members were wearing kept them from serious harm. The damage to the boat was significant, however, with the wing sail collapsing in several pieces as the tide pushed the boat out under the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We don’t want to do it again, but this is on the cards,” says Spithill. “It’s kind of like going to a motor race and saying there’s not going to be a car crash. Because there’s a chance of a crash. That’s why these boats are so extreme.”
Since 1851, the America’s Cup has been the ultimate test for the world’s best sailors, requiring a combination of skill, design ingenuity and deep pockets. That year, when the New York Yacht Club’s America vessel challenged the pinnacle of yachting prowess, the British Royal Yacht Squadron, it was the first boat to sport a narrow bow, or front, and a wide stern in the back. It also had a galley capable of producing banquets and six showers.
The century-plus since has brought a constant drive for innovation in the design of the yachts. Australia II, the first yacht to wrest away the America’s Cup from the US after 132 years in 1983, used lightweight carbon fibre, and a winged keel that improved manoeuvrability to great success.
In 2010, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison invested millions in developing one of the most radical boats in America’s Cup history. The three-hulled USA 17 featured engine-powered sail trimmers, was wired to collect data as it sailed, and featured a preposterous 20-storey sail made, not of cloth, but of a construction of carbon-fibre ribbing and a clingfilm-like ‘sail’ used on ultra-light aeroplane gliders covering it. The wing sail was 80 per cent larger than a Boeing 747’s wing and, helmed by the young Spithill, it blew its competitor, the Swiss boat Alinghi, away.
“This stuff is scary. There’s plenty of things to keep me up at night, believe me,” says Scott Ferguson, a wing sail specialist who helped develop the USA 17 boat. “Sometimes it’s the stupidest, smallest thing that can go wrong. I go on the boats for the first sails, and we’re wearing helmets and I think, ‘Make sure you have your life insurance policy set up.’”
Read the full story in December's issue of The Red Bulletin.