clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The yachts of America’s Cup are faster and weirder than ever

New, 33 comments

Thanks to science (and a lot of money)

When I think of yachts, there are billowing white sails helmed by a steady skipper from the stern, smart deck shoes, and Hemingway’s macho protagonists who toil under harsh conditions in briny sea air as they muse, "A man is never lost at sea."

My vision stands in sharp contrast to the current state of elite sailing at the America’s Cup. The 165-year-old contest is yachting on the next level, a cross between X Games adrenaline and a Formula One face-off. Much like modern day motorsports, sailing is a sport steeped in science.

I recently had an up-close view of the Cup’s yachts, among the most technically advanced in the world, in New York City. From the vantage point of Battery Park in lower Manhattan, I watched Team Oracle USA’s crew, dressed in snug nylon uniforms stamped with sponsor emblems, hurriedly prepping a sleek space-aged AC 45 catamaran to compete in a weekend regatta. Their coordinated movements had an almost mathematical heave-ho rhythm in the sloshing salt and fresh waters. The 45-foot boats (hence the "AC 45" moniker) were all hard lines — their tall, angular sails were menacing; their edges sharp, the space-age hydrofoils jutting like vampire teeth.

americas-cup-bareham-02

The extraordinary design of these boats is not for looks, but to maximize aerodynamics, giving them the supernatural ability to skip along the water like a school of feasting barracudas. The sport of sailing has undergone massive transformation in recent years, largely due to the advent of hydrofoils known as "daggerboards." By minimizing drag and engaging power, these daggerboards lift the hull out of the water, speed increases, and the boat starts to skim the surface and basically fly through the air, riding waves and wind. (At full tilt, it’s almost unfair to call these flying machines "boats.") Speeds have doubled since the America’s Cup added daggerboards into the rulebook and they continue to increase.

In 2013, Team Oracle USA, founded by the modern-day yachtsman and internet billionaire Larry Ellison, took foil design to the next level in its 72-foot catamarans and is going into the current Cup race as the defending champion. The next America’s Cup final will be held in 2017 in Bermuda. (Costs for the 2017 will actually be about half, due to the smaller boats that measure 50 feet instead of the previous 72 feet.) The sailing teams are currently in the midst of World Series races in 45-foot yachts that impact position and qualifying for the final, where 50-foot yachts will be raced.

"In the one design, it’s not so much about technology. It’s more about sailing and how you use the equipment," says Grant Simmer, Team Oracle USA’s Chief Operating Officer. "In the final match, it will be about how good is our development program and how good is our sailing team to compete to make the right tactical decisions and the right performance decisions."

It’s the blend of cutting-edge and historical pedigree that give sailing its cultural distinction

It’s the blend of cutting-edge and historical pedigree that give sailing its cultural distinction. Surrounded by giant skyscrapers, New York City has a particularly illustrious history in the sport. Dutch seamen sailed as a pastime in the 17th century, the same era that Dutch settlers first landed in New York Harbor. From the very beginning, yachting was a sport for the upper crust, and its exclusivity was part of its attraction. A 1914 issue of The Lotus Magazine, a New York-based art and culture publication, described its origins: "But let there be no mistake about this word yacht. Of Dutch derivation and related to the Norwegian word jaegt, the word in the XVII century signified a transport for royalty or someone of distinguished rank."

But despite its history as a sport for the wealthy, real sailors aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Sailing is a pastime that gets in the blood; the competition fuels technological advances, which fuels even more exciting competition, and so on, in a perpetual cycle of adrenaline. Ian Burns, the Australian-born director of performance for Team Oracle USA, has been sailing for over 50 years. He was enthusiastic about racing in New York City, where the America’s Cup was first conceived. "The original challenge of the America’s Cup that went over to England was from the New York Yacht Club," he says. "It was a bunch of guys who got this boat they thought was pretty good. They gave 13 of the best British yachts a thorough thrashing. That story is what the America’s Cup is today. The queen asked who’s second, and her footman said, ‘There is no second.’"

Some things in the sport haven’t changed — sailing remains a high-cost endeavor, but instead of royalty, its purveyors are now simply rich. Much like the NFL, yachting relies on the investment of results-driven billionaires. The boat that Team Oracle is using in the World Series has a $1.1 million price tag, and the boat in the final will cost upwards of $6 million. (This figure is actually half of the cost of the bigger boats used in 2013.)

The Verge first visited with Team Oracle USA during the the 2013 America’s Cup final. It was a dramatic moment in the sport as the ultra-fast new boat designs tested the limits of safety and the interpretation of the rulebook. One British sailor, an Olympic gold medalist for Swedish team Artemis Racing, died in a tragic accident after his boat capsized during testing in the San Francisco Bay. Later, Team Oracle was docked points for its weight distribution. However, when the final results were tallied, Team Oracle USA walked away victorious. Subsequent safety measures were put into place. Crew members now carry air, knives, and body armor that can help save them in the event of an accident.

Yet the danger is still real as speeds continue to rise. Burns notes that sailors have broken the 50-knot barrier, which is about 55 to 56 miles per hour. "To achieve that speed is testimony to these high-efficiency, high-power boats that we’ve got," he says. (To put this gain in perspective: in 2013, boats were shattering records at 40 knots.)

americas-cup-bareham-03

Burns is not nostalgic for the old ways of boat building. Like many of the sailors I spoke to, it’s the bleeding edge that captivates him. Team Oracle’s 15-person design team is half made up of PhDs who have no sailing background. "In the olden days, in previous Cups, we’d be lucky to make a one percent gain. We’re talking about 10 percent a year, maybe 20 percent between the cups. It’s an incredible change and that’s because we’re in this new whole way of sailing the boats."

Several of the yachting teams have turned to the automotive industry to boost performance. Sir Ben Ainslie, the well known English sailing champion, fielded the British Land Rover BAR Team. Team Oracle worked with engineering experts from BMW, a team sponsor, to get access to the company’s wind tunnel, 3D-simulation capabilities, and software to study turbulence and airflow. BMW also helped perfect the design of the crossbeams of the hulls. "The boats are very powerful, but the actual weight of the boats is very low, which means they’ve got a great power-to-weight ratio. That’s what allows them to fly," Burns says.

Even with the science, the crew members must face the intangible elements of planning

Even with the science, the crew members must face the intangible elements of planning — the precarious nature of the weather, for instance. When the New York races got underway, the winds shifted constantly. That day, the luck of the sea was not on Team Oracle USA’s side, as Emirates Team New Zealand took the win.

There’s still time for Team Oracle to catch up for the final in Bermuda next year. The stakes will be higher, the boats will be bigger, and the speeds will continue to break new records. "In the one design, it’s not so much about technology," says Simmer. "It’s more about sailing and how you use the equipment. In the final match, it will be about how good is our development program and how good is our sailing team to compete to make the right tactical decisions, the right performance decisions."

The World Series makes its next stop in Chicago June 10th. Meanwhile, the 50-foot carbon fiber catamarans that will be used in the final are still in development. If all goes according to plan, the day of the final in Bermuda will be the day boats can fly.