Offshore Log: From the Americas Cup To You

Carbon fiber spars, titanium blocks and laminated sails perfected for IACC yachts are increasingly finding their way aboard smaller boats.


Its a long step from the world of cruising to the Americas Cup. In a cruising boat, you look for strength, reliability, comfort, and, finally, performance. In an Americas Cup yacht you look for performance, period. Strength and reliability would be nice, but if they come at the price of even a single gram of performance, forget it.

The International Americas Cup Class (IACC) yachts are temperamental and fragile. Their construction is the lightest, highest-tech carbon and honeycomb core permitted under a strict set of rules. Construction techniques and materials are the same as those used to build the space shuttle or a composite aircraft. Before the deck and interior structure are added, six reasonably strong men could pick up an entire 80-foot hull.

Like Formula One racing cars and thoroughbred horses, their speed and maneuverability on the race course is accompanied by a frightening risk of breakdown.

Unfortunately, by the end of the second round robin of the challengers series in late November, the lack of strength and reliability had taken a substantial toll on the racing fleet. Young Americas first boat, USA 53, broke in half after hitting a pair of 6-foot waves wrong. Miraculously, the two halves of the boat stayed together even after the topsides and deck bent like a banana and tore apart like a snapped green twig.

Perhaps more miraculously, the broken boat survived a careful tow back to the dock, and master boatbuilder Eric Goetz put the halves of the shattered boat back together to sail another day.

The Japanese snapped a mast when the runner tail slipped off the winch after a jibe. With four sets of runners attached to a single tail-topmast backstays, normal running backstays, upper checkstays, lower checkstays-and no fixed backstay, there is zero margin for error. The loss of the mast and mainsail-both damaged beyond repair-represented a single days loss of $400,000.

Booms and spinnaker poles break on a regular basis, even without crew mistakes. Sail damage, of course, is common, both from mishandling (even the best crews in the world make mistakes) and structural failures from overloading.

But before you raise a hue and cry about the waste of time and money, consider what has trickled down to the rest of us from just the last two Americas Cups.

Carbon Fiber Spars
Much of the rapid development in carbon spar technology in the last decade originated for the Americas Cup. Carbon fiber spinnaker poles are now standard on a large percentage of racing boats, although their relatively high cost-twice that of an aluminum pole-has limited their popularity among cruisers.

The carbon fiber spinnaker pole on Calypso (also used to wing out the genoa) saves a significant amount of weight, which makes handling the 20-foot pole a snap compared to an aluminum pole of the same length. If you want to build a pole yourself, you can buy carbon fiber tubing straight out of the popular mail-order catalogs.

For custom boats, both racers and cruisers, carbon fiber masts offer such huge advantages that their extra cost is easily justified. We have seen carbon fiber mast retrofits on boats as small as a Hinckley Pilot 35.

The premium you pay for a carbon mast just keeps dropping. Thank the Americas Cup Class for popularizing carbon spars, but remember that Freedom Yachts has been using them for more than 15 years.

Much of the research on lightweight, computer-designed sails that hold their shape over time comes out of the Americas Cup. Norths 3DL technology, first seen aboard Dennis Conners Stars & Stripes in 1992, dominates the big-boat racing fleets. In the long run, similar technology has very real applications for cruising boat sails.

At the very least, computer and wind tunnel research on sail shape is already utilized for cruising boat sails.

Forget wire for running rigging, whether its sheets, guys, halyards, or running backstays. Now its all an alphabet soup of high-strength, lightweight, low-stretch fibers. First it was Kevlar runners. Now its PBO. Even loaded to 12 or 15 tons during racing, they don’t stretch.

We use 14 mm genoa sheets on Calypso. The sheets on an Americas Cup boat are about the same diameter, but they have several times the working load, and a fraction of the stretch.

Harken and Lewmar are fighting it out in the Americas Cup high-tech hardware department, and all sailors are the winners. While you may not want to pay for carbon fiber winches and CNC-milled titanium blocks on your 40-foot cruiser, you are getting constantly improved hardware from the development of both the design programs and materials that go into an Americas Cup hardware package.

All this stuff is achingly beautiful, astonishing light, extremely strong, and unfortunately, expensive.

But it trickles down to all sailors, and it trickles down quickly. As the secrecy surrounding the details of these boats and their gear is relaxed over the next few months, well have a closer look at the stuff that you may find soon on your own boat, thanks to the Americas Cup.

Ed. Note: Former editor of Practical Sailor and current Editor at Large, Nick Nicholson is one of the three members of the Americas Cup Measurement Committee. The committee-Nick, Ken McAlpine of Australia, and John Warren of Englands Royal Ocean Racing Club-oversees and controls the design, construction, and modification of the Americas Cup Class boats. Nick and Maryann Mecray built their 40-foot Alan Pape-designed Calypso from a bare hull and departed Newport, Rhode Island in 1997. They will stay in New Zealand until the end of the races, after which time they plan to resume their circumnavigation.

Nick Nicholson
Nick Nicholson is a boatbuilder, racing sailor, and circumnavigator. He began his career at Practical Sailor as an Associate Editor in 1979, and has been Editor-at-Large since he left full-time work in the early 1990s to finish building a 40’ cutter in his backyard, and subsequently sail it more than 40,000 bluewater miles. The voyages of Calypso were chronicled in the Offshore Log section of Practical Sailor during that circumnavigation. He has also raced from the US east coast to Bermuda more than 20 times, winning numerous navigator’s trophies in the process. In recent years, he has primarily worked as a race official and technical rules advisor in the Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup. He also chairs the Technical Committee for the Newport Bermuda Race.