Features May 1, 2000 Issue

Offshore Log: America's Cup Triumphs and Failures

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends:
Not with a bang, but with a whimper.
—T.S. Eliot

The world of America's Cup XXX ended with little more than a whimper in early March when Team New Zealand rolled over Italy's Prada Challenge five races to none. After five years of intramural training for TNZ, and five months of cutthroat competition for Prada in the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger selection series, the America's Cup was an anticlimax, a dud, a fizzle.

Team New Zealand’s Black Magic won every start, and was ahead at every mark. Prada's Luna Rossa, tweaked to improve her upwind performance before the match with Team New Zealand, simply never showed the type of speed that had characterized her during the challenger trials.

The Italians made tactical blunders and sailhandling errors that would have been unacceptable on a Wednesday night beer can race. Kiwi helmsmen Russell Coutts and Dean Barker tied Prada skipper Francesco de Angelis and tactician Torben Grael in knots during pre-start maneuvers. In a textbook demonstration of match racing, New Zealand tactician Brad Butterworth took no chances, and once ahead, always kept his black boat between Prada and the next mark.Why was it such a blowout? Were all the challengers simply slower than the New Zealand boats? Or are the Kiwis just much better sailors than the rest of the world?

The Boats
As one of the three America's Cup measurers, my perspective on the boats is somewhat different from that of most observers. Unfortunately, the exact differences in the boats are highly proprietary. Even if they were not, there is no way to look at these boats and intuitively understand why one is faster than another.

All the designs are finalized after much computer analysis and tank testing. The subtle interactions between hull shape, distribution of volume, and appendages cannot be picked up by even the most knowledgeable eye.

All of the boats are narrow and long. Typically, the boats are between 79' and 82' (24 to 25 meters) in length. Some boats started out shorter, and scarfed on stern extensions to increase length. At least one boat was originally longer, but chopped off a couple of feet of stern when it was discovered that the additional length never touched the water.

Differences in beam are easier to see. The narrowest boat in this America's Cup had a beam of about 11' 6" (3.5 meters). The widest boat was just over 13' (4 meters) in beam. These beam/length ratios are closer to those of turn-of-the-century English gaff cutters than they are to the proportions of "normal" modern boats. By comparison, all of the 1992 generation of boats were typically close to the rule-allowable maximum beam of 18' (5.5 meters).

Hauled out, all these boats look more like model racing yachts than full-size sailboats. Twenty-ton lead bulbs hang somewhat precariously on the bottom of steel keel fins which are only about 18" wide and 3" thick in section. The leverage on these fins and the load they impart to the hull is astounding.

The rudders have about the same area and shape as would be found on a modern 50-footer. Although the boats are very light on the helm, the upwind groove for maximum speed is extremely narrow. The very small rudders also mean that turning the boats requires careful coordination between helmsman and sail trimmers.

You cannot muscle these boats around the weather or leeward marks using the rudder alone. If the mainsheet trimmer does not follow the helmsman quickly enough, the boat continues on in a straight line, with the rudder completely stalled.

Much of the hull of an America's Cup Class boat is little more than a lightweight, watertight membrane. Most of the loads are carried by internal structure, which is concentrated along the centerline (for longitudinal stiffness) and in the area of the mast and keel support structures.

A great deal of engineering goes into the hull and support structure. Every kilogram of weight that can be removed from the hull can be added to the keel. Weight in the keel translates into stability. Stability translates into upwind speed.

How important is upwind speed? It is very important, indeed. More than 80% of the time, the boat that gets to the weather mark first wins the race.

The Class Rule specifies the minimum weights of the hull and deck panels, and we measurers spend a lot of time making sure that the boats comply. We cut a number of core samples from the hull and deck, and analyze them for weight, skin thickness, and core density. We know where it is advantageous to save weight, and we specifically target those areas carefully for compliance.

The outer skin of these all-carbon hulls varies from 1.2 to 1.9 millimeters in thickness. The inner skin is a mere millimeter thick on average. The core—either Nomex aramid honeycomb or aluminum honeycomb—adds the necessary stiffness to the skin package. The entire 80' hull, less deck and internal framing, weighs about 1.5 tons. Designers and builders tell us they could easily make the boats even lighter, if the rules permitted it.

The maximum allowable all-up weight of the boats is 25 metric tons, or about 55,000 pounds. Of this, up to 21 tons is in the 13'-deep bulb and keel fin. The rigged mast and boom weigh in at one ton. This leaves, at most, 3 tons for hull, deck, rudder, hardware, and running rigging.

With a ballast/displacement ratio of 80% to 85%, it's no wonder that these very narrow hulls can still carry 300 square meters of sail upwind (over 3,000 square feet), and 700 square meters of sail (7,500 square feet) downwind, in any breeze.

With the exception of Hawaii's Aloha syndicate, which used Quantum sails, all the boats racing in the Louis Vuitton Cup and the America's Cup used North 3DL mainsails and genoas. There is simply no other choice. These carbon fiber- and Kevlar-reinforced Mylar membrane sails are simply superior to anything else in existence.

North's domination of the market for America's Cup sails is directly the result of the development of 3DL technology. When we saw the first 3DL sail in the 1992 America's Cup (a genoa for Dennis Conner's Stars and Stripes), we looked directly into the future of racing sails. For now, at least, there is no second place in sailmaking at this level.

The 60 measured sails—plus a number of unmeasured development sails—used by each challenger and defender in the America's Cup represent about $3 million worth of sails. That does not include, of course, the design cost (each syndicate must have its own designer) and the half dozen or so full-time sailmakers employed by each syndicate to maintain and repair the sail inventory.

Multiply that expenditure by a dozen syndicates, and you get a good idea of why North's owner, Terry Kohler, has such a smile on his face.

The battle for domination in deck hardware is not so clear-cut. In 1995, only two boats in the America's Cup sported all-Harken deck layouts and winches, but those two boats happened to be the ones that made it to the final match.

In Auckland, Harken made further inroads into the game, and now equips more than half the boats. It has come down to Harken and Lewmar for blocks, winches, and lead cars. Several of the boats sport mixed inventories, choosing Lewmar blocks and Harken winches, or the reverse. Hardware from both of these companies is now so comparable—and so equally well-engineered—that it is difficult to choose between them.

Computer design and computer-driven milling has shaved virtually every possible gram from lightweight titanium deck hardware, and all the weight saved has migrated into the keel.

The same technology has poured down to the average sailor. The off-the-shelf Harken and Lewmar hardware you are putting on your 30-footer today is lighter and stronger than it has ever been, but remember to maintain it properly. Every block, every winch on each America's Cup boat is checked or stripped down daily.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the structural failures experienced in this year's America's Cup. The aft running backstay bulkheads tore out of both Team Dennis Conner's Stars and Stripes and the Swiss challenger.

These runner bulkheads experience phenomenal strains. Running backstay tension has increased dramatically in this America's Cup. Runner loads of 28,000 to 30,000 pounds are the rule, rather than the exception. Since most runner bulkheads are attached to the hull as secondary bonds, it is not too surprising that they can fail.

There were four broken masts during six months of racing. Two of these were the result of flaws in design or construction. One rig was lost when a running backstay tail slipped off a winch. Still another was lost due to a fitting failure. All in all, the rigs are extremely reliable.

By far the most dramatic failure in this America's Cup was the buckling of the hull of the New York Yacht Club's Young America, USA 53, which snapped like a green twig and bent like a banana in rough sea conditions early in the challenger series.

The remarkable part of that incident was the fact that the hull actually managed to stay afloat and in one piece, with the two halves held together by a broad longitudinal centerline band of carbon fiber which functioned as a giant piece of high-strength duct tape.

Even more remarkable was the fact that the boat was rebuilt and lives to sail again. Using the same Brown & Sharpe laser-guided topographic measuring system that was employed to fair the hull and mold during the original construction, boatbuilder Eric Goetz and his crew cut the hull of USA 53 in two, removed about 8' of damaged mid-section, aligned the two halves of the hull, and laminated a new, identical mid-section in place.

The intricate protocols that govern the America's Cup required that the repaired hull of USA 53 be identical in shape to the original. To verify compliance, we measured every conceivable dimension of the repaired hull. It was, in fact, identical to the boat as first built, within a maximum tolerance of one-half millimeter—the thickness of the lead in a mechanical pencil—which is the accuracy to which we are able to measure with the tools of our trade: plumb bobs and tape measures.

There was much finger-pointing after the Young America failure. The designers—Bruce Farr and Associates—issued a statement absolving themselves of any design or engineering shortcomings, and implicitly targeted both the construction and maintenance of the boat. The builder, wisely, said nothing. The boat maintenance crew, as always, worked away night and day to keep the boats sailing.

More than the hull of USA 53 was broken. The fragile momentum of Young America's challenge unraveled after the failure. The crew lost confidence in their boats. The concentration of the afterguard lapsed. There was a vacuum in leadership both on the boat and in the syndicate which was never filled.

Young America's $40 million effort—the second biggest budget in the America's Cup, after the bottomless pockets of Patrizio Bertelli's Prada challenge—turned into a $40 million fiasco, with the syndicate failing to make it to the semi-finals. The members of the New York Yacht Club were left holding the bag, wondering exactly what they had gotten for their huge investment.

How fast were these Farr boats? Early on, they demonstrated glimpses of real speed. It is widely believed that they might have been the fastest boats in Auckland, had they stayed in one piece and been sailed well.

Prada's Bertelli certainly feels the boats have potential. In early March, he closed a deal to purchase all of Young America's assets—both boats, their two radical Hall Spars wing masts, sails, and all equipment. As much as anything, Bertelli wanted to be sure that whatever innovations in design and construction were hidden in USA 53 and USA 58 were in his hands, rather than those of the competition. Mr. Bertelli is not just very rich: he is very, very smart.

There are many failures in the America's Cup, but there is only one true success story: Team New Zealand. Before the match, there were two schools of thought. First, that the challengers would be so battle-hardened by the selection trials that TNZ, limited to intramural contests, would be no match for the challenger. The second theory was that the challengers would be so worn out by the grueling rounds of selection trials racing that they would be worn out by the time of the match.

The second scenario was spot-on. The challenger finals went the full nine races, with Prada and Paul Cayard's AmericaOne grinding each other to pieces on the racecourse. While Prada's boats, sails, and equipment were still in good shape, the Italian sailors had given their all to make it to the match. They had nothing left to give, just when they needed it most.

But the story of this America's Cup is not the failure of Prada. It is the success of Team New Zealand. Sixty-nine-year-old Laurie Davidson proved that there is still room for an intuitive yacht designer even in the age of computer analysis. His original design was fine tuned and buffed by the younger, more computer-oriented members of the design team—sometimes to Davidson's dismay. Through careful exploration of the class rules, they eked out enough additional sail area to ramp up the boat's light air performance beyond that of Prada, which had proven so dominant in the lighter-air races of the challenger trials.

Likewise, designer Steve Wilson of Southern Spars produced a superb pair of masts for the defender, one of which featured an innovative low-drag three-spreader configuration, rather than the typical four-spreader rig. Wilson also developed a method of quickly disengaging the topmast running backstays, lowering them to the deck for upwind sailing, when they do nothing but create drag.

Team New Zealand's upper spreaders featured adjustable air-foil tips, which helped shape the upper part of the light-air genoas. Wilson's masts for New Zealand in San Diego in 1995 were one of the team's secret weapons, and this quiet, unassuming Kiwi did it again in 2000.

Total aerodynamic and hydrodynamic drag of one of these boats is about 425 kilograms (950 pounds). To begin moving the boat forward, the sails must overcome this drag. If drag can be cut by even a few kilograms, light-air performance can be significantly improved. While Team New Zealand would say nothing about how much drag was reduced by their innovations in mast design and rigging, it was obviously significant.

All of these technical innovations, of course, mean nothing if the sailors don't do their job. Team New Zealand was just that: a complete team. The crew sailed flawlessly. Their five years of intramural drills produced a team so well-honed that everything looked easy.

In light of New Zealand's other sports failures this year the America's Cup was a national triumph. New Zealand's All-Blacks lost the rugby World Cup, and hated rivals Australia won. The New Zealand cricket team was pummeled by Australia, and even the women's netball team fell before their cross-Tasman Sea rivals. New Zealand simply had to win the America's Cup, and they did.

New Zealanders have yet to learn how to either win or lose sporting events with grace. They gloat when they win, they turn on their sportsmen when they lose. But the triumph of Team New Zealand in the America's Cup was so complete that the country was, perhaps for the first time, too embarrassed to gloat at success.

They should enjoy their triumph while they can, however. Prada's Bertelli has a taste of victory, and he loves it. America's Paul Cayard experienced an unaccustomed taste of defeat, and he hates it.

Both will be back in New Zealand to try again. The boats, the sails, the equipment will only get better, and all sailors will be the winners.

Practical Sailor editor at large Nick Nicholson is one of the three measurers for the America's Cup.

Comments (0)

Be the first to comment on this post using the section below.

New to Practical Sailor?
Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In