Growing up in Auckland during the late nineties and early millennium saw me witness the peak of the America’s Cup frenzies in New Zealand. I owned my very own pair of Sir Peter Blake’s iconic Red Socks, and I still to this day, distinctly remember sitting in the school library with me eyes glued to the TV screen when Team New Zealand’s mast broke during the 4th race of the 31st America’s Cup. Owing to this, I have always been very nostalgic towards the big hunking, creaking, slow monohulls of yesteryear, and was very weary of the flying behemoths we have come to love today.
Technology has always been my passion, and foolishly chasing that dream is what lead me to study Mechanical Engineering. But even then, though I’ve always admired, and been fascinated by the technology behind these giant catamarans, I can say I was never trill captivated by them as I was with the older monohulls. By no means a sailor in any definition, I was worried that the excitement of true match race sailing was forever lost in the America’s Cup, and that every race would turn out into a drag race, sometimes spreading the boats out by miles. This was the case during the 34th America’s Cup, which was held in San Francisco, and w saw a lot of very lopsided matches.
This years America’s cup, which was held in the lovely island of Bermuda (which is actually a British territory, not American, which is weird, given that America was the defender), saw the boats shrink in size, from 72 feet in length, down to 50 feet. I had a feeling that the smaller boats were a step in the wrong direction, as I felt that the technology was the only thing these boats had going for them. So when this years America’s Cup rolled around, coupled with the fact that Emirates Team New Zealand blew, possibly one of the largest leads in sports history (they were up 8-1 in the finals, but eventually lost out to the Americans, 8-9), I was not looking forward to it to say the least.
And as I write this today, I can say that I was wrong. I was dead wrong about these boats. Yes, they are still catamarans, they still don’t have proper sails (I am still a sucker for a nice, big, round spinnaker), and technically, they aren’t even sailing anymore (Team New Zealand notched multiple races with a “100% Fly Time”, which means their hulls never touched the water during the entire race), but they are damn exciting to watch, and though its taken two Cups to do so, they have grown on me to the point where I genuinely hope these boats stay. These so called “boats”, are just exciting. That’s it.
Having immigrated from Korea, where the concept of sailing is as alien as an alien, my family has never truly embraced the America’s Cup, but when I show them these boats, they are instantly captivated. This is the power of these boats. Its undeniable. They’re fast, dangerous and exciting. There’s a constant risk of something going catastrophically wrong, and its managed to bring the America’s cup back to the masses.
Its amazing to always tell people, and watch their reactions when you tell them that these boats can fly up to four times the speed of the wind. They simply cannot comprehend how this is possible. All the different bits of technology that makes this possible, the Wings, the Foils, the Hydraulic Oil that you always hear about, these are all things that seem very complicated, and whilst they really are that complicated, hopefully we can simplify it down to the point where no-one feels lost during their morning coffee conversations at work.
To anyone that sees these boats for the first time, the thing that should stick out the most, would be the giant wing that they have sticking up off the boat. The wing comes in at about 25metres tall, which makes it roughly the same length as a wing on a Boeing 747. Funny I should compare it to an airplane wing, because that’s what it basically is, and that’s how it propels these new “boats” so dangerously quickly (in fact, during the previous America’s Cup, a sailor was tragically killed when their boat capsized).
If you watched any coverage of this years America’s Cup, you might have caught instances where the commentators refer to the “Camber” of the Wing Sail. Take a close look at one of these wings, and you will notice that they are largely made up of two elements. One in the front, and one in the back. Camber refers to the angle between these two elements. If there were to be no camber, and two elements would be parallel to each other, and if there was maximum camber, the angle between these two elements would be at their greatest. The camber of the wing ensures that the wing is generating “lift”. Much like an airplanes wing, the uneven “aerofoil” shape of the wing creates a lift force, which in the case of these boats, is being harnessed to propel the boats forward, rather than upward (as is the case on planes).
This idea is what allows the boats to sail much faster than the speed of the wind around them. As the boats go faster and faster, it is in essence, subjecting the wing to higher and higher wind speeds. Its basically creating its own wind.
On this campaign, it was Skipper, Glenn Ashby’s job to control how the wing sail was manipulated throughout the race, ensuring every last bit of performance was extracted from it at all times.
DAGGERBOARDS / FOILS
The next thing you’ve probably noticed is that the boats are in fact flying! This is done with the help of the “Foils” and “Rudders”. Again, these are basically small airplane wings, but instead of working in air, they are working underwater. This is possible because air and water are both fluids. As the boats are propelled by their giant wing sails, more and more water is being rushed over the L shaped foils under the hulls. This means that the foils generate more and more lift force, which is what lifts the hulls out of the water.
Getting the hulls out of the water is very beneficial, as it greatly reduces drag from the hulls in the water, and during this America’s Cup, the gold standard was ETNZ’s 100 Fly Time races.
Onboard Emirates Team New Zealand, it was Blair Tuke’s job to make sure the foils were working properly. He was able to control the height of the foils, as well as their Cant, which can be best described as hinging the dagger boards side to side, and their rake, which is exactly the same thing, but back to front.
The rules this time round stated that teams could only have a maximum of 4 Dagger Boards, or Foils, at once. Obviously two Foils make up a pair, so teams could only carry two pairs of foils. This meant that they carried one set of “High Wind” foils, which are smaller, and designed to create less lift and drag, and one set of “Low wind” foils which are much larger, allowing them to generate much more lift in slower speeds, at the expense of more drag.
After their win, it was revealed that this set of “Low Wind” foils was badly damaged during the pitch pole incident during their race with Artemis in the Louis Vuitton finals, which saw the Kiwi boat capsize. As a set of foils takes roughly 80 days to properly make, the Kiwis has to make do with repaired foils, which had lost a lot of their structural integrity.
The Rudders are the small yellow things that you can notice on the back of the New Zealand boat. Their main function is to steer the boat, and is what Peter Burling is turning with his steering wheel.
CYCLORS / GRINDERS
As you can see, on the Kiwi boat, three different people are in charge of these three completely different jobs. Though it seems so obvious, this is a luxury that only Emirates Team New Zealand was able to afford during the 35th America’s Cup. The size of the crews were drastically reduced from 11 down to 6 for these smaller boats.
The reason that the New Zealand crew can afford so many people to do one specialized job, is due to their “Cyclors”. You’ve probably noticed that whilst all the other teams use conventional grinders, the Kiwis use modified bikes.
To explain why the cycling is so significant, its important to explain why they do what they do. With all the previous versions of the America’s Cup boats, the grinding was used as power to move various bits of the boat on demand. When you needed to trim your sails, you did it by grinding it into motion. When you needed to hoist the Spinnaker, you did it by grinding it up. But this year, for the first time, “Hydraulic Accumulators” were allowed. You can think of them as large diver’s tanks. By grinding or ‘Pedaling” as it were, the sailors are driving pumps which build up the pressure of the nitrogen stored within these accumulators. This Nitrogen is what provides the energy to be able to pump the hydraulics around the boat to where its needed. This is what the commentators are referring to when they are saying Team New Zealand is able to pump more oil. Because the legs are a much larger muscle group, the New Zealanders are able to charge the accumulators more quickly, to much higher pressures, for longer. This is why they are able to pull off so many demanding manoeuvres, and make many fine adjustments, as they have the power to do so. All the meantime, due to the efficiency with which they charge their accumulators, the Kiwis only have 4 full time Cyclors, whereas all other teams were using 5 traditional grinders.
The added advantage of the pedaling, is that the hands are free to do other things. Blair Tuke, who was in charge of the foils, was a full time Cyclor as well. Because he was pedaling, he was able to use his hands to control the foils. And as Glenn Ashby was “only” trimming the wing, this meant that Peter Burling could solely focus on steering the thing. His contemporary Jimmy Sptihill had to look at where he was going, whilst also managing the foils as well. This would turn out to be one major advantage the kiwis had over the Americans, as it allowed a much more refined control over their boats.
Seeing how much the America’s Cup boats have evolved over the last few regattas is nothing short of amazing. It will be interesting to see over the coming weeks, what Team New Zealand’s vision for the future holds. Grant Dalton, the CEO for Emirates Team New Zealand was very unlike himself this time round, and kept most of his words to himself. But from what little he did say, he emphasized that he would return the rules to a much more level playing field. He wanted the best team to come out on top, and would not make it such that his team were given a helping hand to do so. The way it should be.