Hidden differences could decide America's Cup
Away from the cheering crowds and the razzamatazz of the America’s Cup World Series events, the six teams hoping to lift the America’s Cup are intently focused on perfecting the design of the America’s Cup Class yachts they will race in Bermuda next summer.
Unlike in previous Cup cycles when the custom boats have turned out distinctly different, when the 50-footers make their debuts early in 2017, the casual observer could be forgiven for mistaking them to be identical, so prevalent are the one design elements – hulls, cross beams, wing - as prescribed by the latest class rules.
However, hidden from sight there will likely be massive differences in the systems each team chooses to help trim the gigantic wing sails and control the foil dagger boards and winged rudders that enable the boats to fly.
We asked Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Glenn Ashby, SoftBank Team Japan skipper and helmsman, Dean Barker and Artemis Racing Team Manager and tactician, Iain Percy to help us all understand how these differences might set the teams apart once racing begins.
“It’s a bit like NASCAR or Formula 1 where the looks are the same from the outside but it's really the technology and the computer work, the code, the electronics and the hydraulics systems under the bonnet, that effectively make the difference,” explained Ashby.
“So, to the untrained eye, they will look basically the same sitting on the moorings, but ‘under the bonnet’, they'll be quite different packages for sure.
“While the wings basically look the same and even the foils will possibly look very similar by the time we get to the Cup, it's the operating systems that the crew have to actually use which will be the biggest difference from team to team.”
“In this game I have learned a couple of times now that you cannot assume anything,” Barker told us. “From a distance the boats will all look the same because of the one design limitations around the hulls and the wings.
“A visible aspect will be the dagger board shapes and how teams position themselves in that area. However, the one thing that you can’t see or assess from watching a boat sailing will be how well the control systems work - in both the wing and the dagger board systems.
“It will be interesting to see how the boats behave and perform once they have been debugged and trialled properly in that last two or three months leading through until the Cup.”
Historically, the adage that the fastest boat always wins the America’s Cup has proved to be true. But, in this new age of eye-watering performance, could a crew with a set of reliable on-board systems that gets around the course without disaster or breakdown, prevail over a faster but less reliable boat?
“We almost saw in the last Cup an occasion where the fastest boat didn't win,” Percy told us. “Then in the end, Oracle got a grips with the potential of their boat and it was a whitewash from there. They were almost a minute, I'll say, quicker on the course.
“This time I don't think you'll see differences between the boats that are that big,” Percy commented.
“You can trade off lots of different things and the choices you make give you strengths and weaknesses. But I think all the teams are smart. They've made those choices with their eyes open.
“Inevitably, it's going to become a real sailing race. It will be about speed, but speed will come a lot from technique and from skill level of the sailors.
“Happily, for those reasons, I think it's going to be an incredible America's Cup to watch.”
According to Ashby, the key is to "find that balance between efficiency, usability, and performance”.
“The efficiency of the systems is obviously very important because everything on the boats is manually powered. The boats have to be extremely efficient but at the same time, you want to be able to adjust things accurately one to get the performance. If it's too efficient and you can’t trim things enough, you'll be slower.
“Those things are very much what you think about as a sailing team and what goes into the pot when you are developing your systems,” he said. “We are always asking what could we potentially be able to do that our opposition might not be able to do.”
Barker agrees that having the right the systems could enable a crew to pull off key manoeuvres at the critical time on the racecourse.
“For years everyone was chasing hard to perfect the foiling gybe and now that is pretty much standard practice on these boats. The foiling tack is the next one on the target list, I guess, along with keeping the boat on the foils for as much as you can over the course of a race.
“Having the right systems that work when you need them too is critical to both these things.”
“More than any boats we have sailed in the past, these boats reward good crew work and good communication on board,” Barker continued.
“The boats are so finicky and hard to sail at times that just in sailing ability alone there are going to be opportunities to make an average boat go well.
“Will someone turn up with a boat that blows everyone else out of the water? Well, maybe yes in certain conditions.
“It could be very much the case where in one particular set of conditions one team has an advantage, but then it's hard to see someone being able to maintain that right across the range of conditions you can have in Bermuda.”
[IMAGE: ACEA/JOHN VON SEEBURG]