America's Cup Diary - February 2006, #1

With five new sail numbers allocated to various America's Cup teams, design and build teams are working furiously to have these Version 5 boats ready for competition in the 2006 Acts.

Version 5 is really just a tightening down of the existing rule in many ways, as it forces the designers into a corner of the box that they were already heading towards. This was very much the intention of Alinghi and ACM's management team, as Alinghi's resident historian and general counsel Hamish Ross explained recently during a roadshow tour of America. "The reason why we did that is to make racing closer and more exciting. It would have been easy for us, if you like, to gerrymander the rules to make sure that we had a big advantage, but Alinghi really has a long-term goal of making the Cup, growing the Cup, growing the awareness of the Cup worldwide. As part of that, we want to make the racing as exciting as we possibly can. So the design parameters have been boxed down a lot more."

It's hard to fault Alinghi/ACM for their generosity in this area of the Cup. There was much more advantage to be gained by a big, wealthy team to open the design rules right up, but as Ross stated, Alinghi's goals are as much focused on the commercial growth of the event as in the successful defence of the Cup in 2007. Then again, that isn't to say that there isn't anything left for the designers to tinker with. It's just that hull shapes are unlikely to be the big area for gains.

It was interesting to note how open Alinghi have been with SUI-75, their rocketship that performed so well in 2005. Throughout the past year's regattas, she was there for all to see and photograph, and no doubt rival teams spent many an hour logging the subtleties of her hull shape and appendages. The one area that the Swiss appear very cagey about, however, is the base of the mast between the hull and the deck. During sailing this section of the rig is below decks, but as soon as the rig is lifted out on shore the team are very careful to cover it up.  The belief is that they have a twisty rig, which would mean the upper sections of the mast would be more favourably aligned with the wind direction and present less wind resistance.

So the areas for making gains could be much more subtle this time than on previous occasions. There's no strong likelihood of a winged keel or a hula coming out of leftfield. This should make for some tight racing in the finals in 2007, something that has been sorely lacking in past America's Cups. Along with the move to shorter courses, thereby further minimising any boatspeed advantages, Valencia should represent a test of superior sailing skill as opposed to superior design.

This sounds like a good thing, as in many people's view it is the sailors and not the designers that should be the stars of the show. But for others, the Cup boats have grown too long in the tooth, and it is time for the event to come up with something more cutting edge. Certainly sailing technology has moved on leaps and bounds in the decade and a half of the ACC yacht's existence. The new generation of lightweight canting keel boats, such as are competing in the current Volvo Ocean Race, almost always exceed true windspeed. Give them 6 knots breeze and they'll do 8. Give them 20 knots and they'll hit 23, no trouble.

The ACC boats on the other hand, rarely exceed 11 knots either upwind or downwind. Slow boats make for close, but slow-motion competition. While they won't admit it publicly, many Cup sailors do not enjoy the actual sailing experience of the ACC boats. Hopefully this current generation of ACC yachts will be the last that we will see of them. Valencia 2007 will be an opportune moment for saying thank you and goodbye to the old, and heralding in a new breed of race yacht that really gets the sailors' juices flowing again.

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