Hamilton, Bermuda — The 35th America’s Cup, fuelled by technology drawn from the world of aerospace, is pushing sailing beyond the bounds of the sea.
"It’s the first America’s Cup in which you have to reinvent a way to sail," says Laurent Chatillon, the Airbus engineer who has been working for two years in Bermuda with Oracle Team USA, who will launch the final phase of their quest for a third straight America’s Cup on Saturday. "These boats are flying," he says. "It’s really the third dimension."
The 50-foot America’s Cup twin-hulled catamarans would be unrecognisable not only to the sailors of the first America’s Cup in 1851, but to those competing 15 years ago.
Gone are the canvas sails, replaced by the towering carbon fibre fixed-wing sail. The grinders, built like rugby players, no longer crank winches to trim traditional sails but to produce the hydraulic energy necessary to operate the boat.
In some cases, they are using cycle-style pedals to do it, rather than arm-powered winches.
As the six crew — helmeted like race car drivers — go about their business on the water hundreds of sensors relay information on every aspect of the boat’s performance to a team’s base camps for instant analysis.
The skipper oversees it all from a command post more like the cockpit of an aircraft.
It all produces racing at speeds three times faster than the wind as the L-shaped hydrofoils allow the boats’ hulls to rise a metre from the surface of the water, thus reducing drag.
Amid the aerodynamics and algorithms that underlie the breathtaking spectacle, instinct still plays a key role.
As part of a technological partnership initiated in 2012, Airbus exchanged some of its manufacturing techniques with Oracle, in particular three-dimensional printing and laboratory tests that saved time in the design process.
The team drew on the expertise of traditional marine engineers and aerospace experts to interpret data, but not everything comes down to numbers.
Jimmy Spithill, the skipper who guided Oracle Team USA to America’s Cup triumphs in 2010 and 2013, is particularly adept at judging the nuances of his boat’s performance. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he pilots aircraft in his spare time.
"Jimmy is amazing," Chatillon says. "When we have an issue, he does not always know why but he finds the solution. And when he says he has a strange sensation on the boat and the numbers tell us nothing, we know we have to keep looking because in general, he’s right."
Not all sailing enthusiasts have welcomed the emergence of the foiling catamarans first introduced to the America’s
Cup in 2013 in San Francisco. But Oracle GM Grant Simmer insists that the venerable
competition — said to be the oldest trophy in international sport — has always been about pushing boundaries.
"Traditionalists don’t like catamarans," Simmer says. "Some people don’t like foils. But the fact is that we are at the top level of the sport and the kids of today want to go sailing on foils.
"It’s very good that they can see their heroes at the Cup, they can see boats foiling around, they can aspire to that."
Nathan Outteridge, a 2012 Olympic gold medallist and skipper of Sweden’s Artemis Racing, agrees that the advances are good for the sport. "I think we’ve just added a new dimension to sailing," says Outteridge — whose Artemis made it to the challenger final only to be
ousted by Team New Zealand.
"It makes it even more
interesting. We can definitely get more speed out of these boats. We’re getting closer to 50 knots and it’s pretty exciting. We are still making proper sailing decisions, it’s just slightly more complex than it used to be."
For Chatillon, the melding of technologies is just the beginning of the adventure.
"We are now where we were on the ’60s in aviation," he says. "At the end of the Cup, we’ll sail differently than before."