America's Cup - July 2012

So finally the rebooted, modern version of the America’s Cup visited Newport, Rhode Island, home of the Cup for 132 years and strong defender of the old tradition.

You might have wondered whether the reception from some quarters in Newport could have been on the frosty side, perhaps from some of the old boys at the New York Yacht Club. After all, there are still those who labour under the misconception that the America’s Cup is named after the country, rather than the yacht that won the original round-Isle-of-Wight race back in 1851.

Bearing in mind just how advanced the America was for her day, perhaps the wing-masted AC45s that came to race at the America’s Cup World Series regatta in Newport were not so untraditional after all. For all their differences, both yacht types share a common theme of being far ahead of their time. Certainly the people of Newport seemed thrilled to have the America’s Cup roadshow make a visit, and turned out in their thousands to watch the racing from Fort Worth.

The high spectator numbers - 60,000 at Fort Worth alone, never mind others gathered around the various shorelines - were even more impressive considering that this was the first event on the tour to charge spectators a $10 entry fee. Commercially even more valuable was NBC’s decision to air the final’s day racing coast to coast across the USA, signalling the return of live America’s Cup racing to network television in the United States for the first time in 20 years.

After taking a bit of a bruising at the two regattas in Naples and Venice in the spring, Oracle Racing stepped up a gear for Newport. Perhaps it was the prospect of sailing in front of a home crowd, but the two defender boats really proved themselves a class act here. In fact the defender has recently rebranded itself as Oracle Team USA, although with the lack of American representation on the sailing team and the preponderance of antipodean talent, one could wonder if it was a misspelling of Oracle Team AUS.

In fact, Australian Olympic medallist Darren Bundock stepped aside from steering the second boat, handing back the tiller to his boss, New Zealander Russell Coutts. Bundock hasn’t made much impact on the circuit as a helmsman, and we will have to see what role he fills in the next year. With the imminent arrival of Ben Ainslie after the Olympics, along with James Spithill’s mastery of multihull sailing, it’s hard to see Bundock getting too many steering opportunities. For Newport he had reverted to the role for which he was originally hired, as a coach to the team.

As for the 50-year-old Coutts, despite him not having steered an AC45 for more than six months, he was better than we’ve ever seen him in a multihull. In an all-Oracle match racing final, Coutts outsmarted Spithill, clearly pleased to have done so as he joked to his crew when crossing the finish line: “It’s been quite a while since I’ve won anything!”

Then in the fleet racing championship he led the final big-points fleet race for much of the course until overtaken by Chris Draper’s Luna Rossa Piranha team.

Spithill was clearly impressed by the man 17 years his senior. “Nice work you old bugger,” acknowledged the 33-year-old to his paymaster after the match racing. “You’ve still got a few tricks in you.” Coutts fired back with a laugh: “You’re too young to know some of those tricks.”

Many predictions were made about the unsuitability of multihulls for match racing, but those objections have long been forgotten. Coutts reignited some of the old moves from his keelboat days in the match against Spithill, making a deft move late in the pre-start to hook in behind his team mate and hold him out of the start line. Spithill never gave up, pushed Coutts hard, but Coutts held on for the win.

After a sloppy season in Europe, it was an important reaffirmation of Oracle’s sailing ability. Spithill had been anticipating a close battle with Emirates Team New Zealand for the overall 2011/12 season title, with Newport being the final of the six regattas held thus far. But some abject performances by the Kiwis made Spithill’s task much easier than expected.

During practice the Kiwi boat hit a mark boat, with photographer Gilles Martin-Raget fortunate not to be injured in the incident. Then, when lining up for a match race against Luna Rossa Piranha, Emirates Team New Zealand unexpectedly capsized in the building conditions. Even worse, Dean Barker and his crew couldn’t get the boat upright for nearly an hour, as the large air gap in the wing rig filled with water.

After a while the boat was no longer lying on its side but had both bows pointing towards the heavens while the boat got washed along by the current. Barker explained the lead-up to the capsize: “It was a close race, we did a normal mark rounding but the runner was caught and we couldn’t let the wing out. The boat was just too loaded up at the point where we couldn’t turn up or down, and the boat just rolled over. These boats have to be treated with the utmost respect. You have any little issue on the boat and it can be very punishing.”

It had been a rare handling error by the Kiwis, and made for a long evening for the shore crew who had to get the wing back into racing shape. A brutal but useful lesson to be learned at half-scale before the Kiwis launch their AC72 multihull, the boat that they hope will win them back the Cup 10 years after they lost it in 2003. After the Swedish team Artemis Racing bust their full-scale wing rig while training on their temporary platform - an old ORMA 60 trimaran - it looks like the New Zealanders will be the first to launch the new breed of 72-footers, closely followed by Oracle some time in August.

The deadline for mounting a challenge is fast approaching. Already having been pushed back two months to make way for possible eleventh-hour entries, it will be interesting to see who puts their US$200,000 before then. Aside from Artemis, New Zealand and Luna Rossa, Team Korea paid its entry fee a good six weeks before the cut-off date, so let’s hope they have some good news to announce soon. The only other possibility being discussed is for Energy Team to get the funds together, but increasingly this looks like a long shot for the French.

And even if the Koreans do manage to build a boat, how much time will they have to test it before competition? Bearing in mind that the big teams are on the verge of launching their AC72s, that puts anyone else about nine months behind. Then, when you see the images that have appeared of an Oracle AC45 riding on hydrofoils above the water, it gives you some idea of the technological battle that is about to unfold.

The photos look spectacular, so much so that you wonder if someone has been busy having fun with Photoshop. As the tiny 10ft dinghies, the International Moths, have discovered - and as the awesome 60ft French trimaran L’Hydroptere has long proven - lifting foils can propel sailing boats to incredible speeds. Reducing water resistance is the single largest gain to be made, so lifting the hulls out of the water seems like a good idea, although it can come with a significant loss of control. Get it wrong at the speeds that an AC72 will be travelling, and the results could be devastating. And bearing in mind the short courses on which the 34th America’s Cup is expected to be contested, will top speed be the over-riding priority?

For us laypeople, it’s always hard to see through the smoke and mirrors of the America’s Cup, and it’s hard to know what role this hydrofoiling technology will play next year in competition. Oracle Team USA did have this to say: "Foils help reduce draft and increase speed. They are a very cost efficient way to gain performance. You can research them extensively in the computer before you build them, and they are small scale, compared with a wing. The foil project is a continuation of one started on USA 17, the team's 90-foot trimaran that won the 2010 America's Cup."

With former design coordinator for Alinghi, Grant Simmer, putting aside his differences with Oracle Team USA to join them as general manager, Oracle has certainly amassed some of the greatest technical talent in the Cup world. Other former Alinghi employees such as engineering talent Dirk Kramers and four-time Cup winning sailor Murray Jones have signed up with the defender. Such is the way of the Cup, the acrimony of those three years of New York Supreme Court bottles forgotten, or put aside.

Technologically and financially, it’s hard to see any of the challengers putting up much of a fight against Oracle. And after the performance in Newport, on sailing talent alone the defender is looking a cut above the challengers.




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