35th America's Cup - One Man's Perspective
I attended the 35th America's Cup in Bermuda and in the blog I offer one man's perspective on the event and the ultimate win by Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ).
About the Boats:
Regardless of what your opinion is regarding foiling multihulls, you must agree that they are exciting to watch. America's Cup purists still long for monohulls, but to watch a foiling catamaran moving at 40-knots is breathtaking. Like NASCAR, it's that element of danger and the excitement of speed that have dramatically increased spectator interest in the last three America's Cup races, and that in turn, brought television rights. So if we want increased interest in sailing - - you can't argue with spectator statistics, they're way up from previous monohull Cup's.
Personally I like the foiling catamarans and the technology in these foiling catamarans will always trickle down to the recreational market. In fact, Beneteau have brought out a recreational monohull that has hydraulically retractable foils, port and starboard. Then of course there are the Moths, C-Fly and foiling Optimist fleets, so it's pretty clear that foiling boats are here to stay.
For the America's Cup I have to confess that I prefer the AC-72's sailed in the 34th America's Cup in San Francisco, better than the AC-50's sailed this year in Bermuda. The size of the 72's is impressive and they appear more balanced to the eye than the AC-50's. My understanding is that Larry Ellison and the America's Cup Event Authority (ACEA) had safety concerns about the speeds reached in San Francisco. During practice racing in San Francisco one of the AC-72's hit 52-knots. In fact, because of the speeds demonstrated during the practice rounds in San Francisco, all the teams agreed to cancel racing if average wind speed exceeded 22 knots - - reason, the boats are able to make 2.5 times wind speed.
However, for the 35th America's Cup, shortening the design to AC-50's didn't have the desired reduction in boat speed. In the four years since San Francisco, the knowledge base about how to sail these foiling catamarans increased dramatically. The result is a 22-foot shorter boat was able to come very close to the speeds witnessed in San Francisco. During practice rounds in Bermuda several boats hit speeds up to 48-knots. Again, in my humble opinion, that's how technology progresses and the trickle down into both racing fleets like the RC-44 and M-32 classes and recreational production boats like the new Beneteau all benefit from the technology.
Inshore vs. Offshore:
The America's Cup originated in 1861 as an offshore race and it remained that way until the 34th America's Cup in San Francisco. When a race is held offshore, you've automatically eliminated ground-based spectator grandstands. With the decreased spectator base, television coverage is reduced. In Bermuda for example, NBC Sports was broadcasting "live" for three hours every day. That's a huge investment and huge revenue generator for the competing teams.
If we move to monohulls, and some have suggested the RC-44's and/or M-32's, then the event will be an offshore race. That of course was how the America's Cup originated, but the only spectators will be people with boats. With diminished crowds comes diminished revenue and that in turn limits investment in innovation.
I was on my own yacht in Bermuda and for the J-Class race we went offshore to watch it. Honestly, I was very excited to watch seven J-Class boats race because it was the largest gathering of J-Class boats in history. But, once the race started, I watched the dynamic between the guests onboard. During the AC-50 races, everyone on board was glued to the racing. With the J-Class boats moving at 11-knots, people began drifting into conversations during the various legs and were glancing at the racing rather than being fixated on the racing. Of course, the grace and beauty of the J-Class boats was a phenomenal site, but the speed differential between the foiling catamarans allowed spectators to socialize more and still "keep an eye" on the racing. At mark rounding's, or spinnaker sets and douses, the guests paid more attention, but generally they were socializing, eating and drinking.
The J-Class boats were moving at 11-12 knots, fast by most recreational standards, but with 20-30 minutes between marks, the time gave way to socializing rather than being glued to the racing. Conversely, the AC-50's moving at 30-40 knots held everyone attention for the full race which lasted 18 minutes instead of one and a half hours. That's the difference that struck me; the foiling catamarans are captivating for the full 18 minutes of the race.
If RC-44 or M-32 class boats are adopted for the next America's Cup, then the races will be much longer. Because of modern technology, these boats today are faster than the J-class boats, but nowhere close to the speed of a foiling catamaran.
So, back to the question of growing spectator base and television rights? If we want more interest in sailing, are we better off with an offshore race in monohulls, or an inshore race with foiling catamarans. Certainly with an inshore race the organizing authority can set up viewing grandstands and VIP viewing venues and still accommodate those wishing to view from their own yachts. If the race is offshore in monohulls, that viewing crowd is lost.
Why did ETNZ win?
I was in Bermuda a week before the start of the Louis Vuitton racing until the last America's Cup race. What I witnessed was a steady and vertical learning curve by all the teams participating - - they all kept getting faster and faster. But from the very beginning, ETNZ had boat speed. In the Qualifiers, when all the competitors' learning curve was more or less equal, ORACLE Team USA (OTUSA) beat ETNZ two out of three races sailed and took the valuable 1 bonus point into the America's Cup Match.
But ETNZ had to continue to sail in the Semi-Finals, then the Play Off series, and then the Louis Vuitton Finals to win the chance to take on OTUSA. In each of those races, ETNZ's team became a close knitted group, executing the foiling tacks and gybes flawlessly. In fact, they began to sail races with 100% fly-time, meaning they were on foils for 100% of the race. OTUSA practiced each day while ETNZ was racing, but there is a HUGE difference between practicing and being race hardened. THAT is the first reason ETNZ won - - the continuous racing honed the team. In contrast, OTUSA was rusty and it showed by fouling on two of the starts.
Second, the Kiwi's always bring innovation and this year they brought bicycles to power the hydraulics instead of arm power. On several occasions during the America's Cup match races, OTUSA missed some tacks and gybes and in the post-race press conferences Jimmy Spithill said they lost hydraulic pressure. Only once did I see ETNZ miss a maneuver because they lost hydraulic pressure. So, I do believe the bicycle innovation allowed ETNZ to maintain hydraulic pressure while OTUSA struggled to maintain hydraulic pressure.
Lastly, the foil shape on ETNZ was radically different than any of the competitors. The last 25% of ETNZ's foils were angled at about 35 degrees while all the other competitors were more or less straight. Where this innovation showed was in rounding the marks. Momentum rounding a mark loads weight on the outboard side. This gives a tilt of about 30-35 degrees to the outside. This is also the time when the "off" foil is dropped and the "on" foil retracted. Think about it - - if the outside hull is loaded 30 degrees - - when the "off" foil is lowered and it's tip is bent 30 degrees, it's level with the water and as the boat transfers weight to the new "on" side, that angle supports the transition. It's a remarkable piece of engineering. So much so, that during the 5-day layoff period, OTUSA modified their foils so the tips were angled about 35 degrees. Too little, too late as OTUSA had never sailed with these angled foils and their tacks and gybes were not smooth with the new foils. So the THIRD reason ETNZ won was foil design. Bare in mind that ETNZ had "learned" how to use those angled foils during all the races leading up to the America's Cup Match and sailed all seven of the America's Cup match races with 99.6% fly-time.
In summary, ETNZ won because:
— The ETNZ team became race hardened during the qualifying process
— The innovation of using bicycles to power the hydraulics
— The innovation and engineering behind the angled foils
I'm sure there were hundreds of other small things that contributed to the win, but in my opinion the three big items above were certainly important to the win. Of course, the wind conditions during the America's Cup Match didn't help. The wind gods gave us 8-12 knots of wind. In the two races that OTUSA won against ETNZ during the Qualifiers, the winds speed was in the 20-knot range. Taking nothing away from ETNZ, they were clearly the faster boat and in sailboat racing - - the faster boat always wins!
What does the future hold?
Emirates Team New Zealand will now set the rules for the 36th America's Cup. There is a lot of talk the ETNZ would like to see a return to monohulls. As a life-long sailor I've been watching the America's Cup since the days of Ted Turner and Dennis Conner. I can tell you that I favor staying with the foiling catamarans, but returning to the AC-72's. I did not like the look of the AC-50. I would also encourage ETNZ to consider the growth in interest in the America's Cup that has taken place over the last tow Cup's; we don't want to lose that.
Finally, the Red Bull Youth events, where they sail manually powered AC-45's is quite active and they have a wonderful sponsor in Red Bull. This is the training pit from which the future crews for the Americ's Cup boats would/will come from. If foiling catamarans are abandoned, then the Red Bull Youth event will go bye the bye.
Of course, this is only one man's opinion. Emirates Team New Zealand will make the decisions that will determine the next America's Cup. I welcome your opinions and would love to hear them.