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AC34 Finals: Notes of Interest

I’ve noticed several things in the current America’s Cup finals that keep my interest. While others in San Francisco seem completely oblivious to the racing, and it’s hard to drag them out and watch, I’m still excited about watching these points:

  1. Overall performance (energy transfer) engineering: ETNZ has the best boat design engineers in the world. It’s clear. They’re getting 4-5 knots more speed upwind. That is a huge factor for match competition where getting on top of the other boat means controlling the finish — the deciding factor in several races so far. I’ve seen far more twist at the top of the ETNZ sail compared to Oracle. Basically, Oracle spent more than double yet ended up with a slower boat. A straight run speed delta also tends to have a serious psychological effect on the sailors, forcing other errors, because it’s hard to stay positive when side-by-side you fall behind.
  2. Reduced drag: Both teams position sailors further and further below deck level. One of the team engineers told me that one single sailor standing up causes enough drag at 25knts to impact performance by several seconds a kilometer. The boats are only a few seconds apart in the races so over a 1500m course a boat with less drag from sailors themselves will have a measurable advantage. ETNZ seems to have the more aerodynamic deck and cowlings. It also hurts when water hits you at 25knts (like cold nails) so working lower is probably welcome relief.
  3. Turns: As the boats jockey for dominance they carve incredibly fast turns. A 72ft boat that can pivot at speed within its own waterline is a phenomenal engineering achievement. The wind and water generate massive loads yet the captains clearly transfer the energy and shift quickly while keeping speed. ETNZ has an advantage in this area as they clearly make smoother turns and maintain more of their speed, which further capitalizes on straight-line speeds.
  4. Team fitness: These people have trained non-stop for three years, every day and often twice a day. They are at the peak of physical shape. Yet when I watch the videos with sound on I hear them wheezing and coughing as if they can barely catch their breath. Turning and tuning the boat completely maxes them out. And they can’t go anywhere. Unlike football, soccer, basketball, baseball, volleyball…there is no relief or substitution possible. The Round-the-World Ocean races once were described to me as playing rugby without any option of leaving. That is why professional sailing could perhaps be seen as one of the top physically demanding sports in the world.
  5. Tactics: I’m completely shocked at the errors a usually ultra-aggressive Spithill has made. I expected to see Oracle try and force errors, play dirty and get in Barker’s face at every chance. Instead Spithill has made repeated unforced errors and been charitably giving away races. Perhaps he is not in sync with his team, or the speed delta is getting into his head. When the match-racing heat is on high, Spithill starts melting and makes moves painful to watch. Meanwhile Barker, always the quiet gentleman, sails away confidently and cleanly.
  6. Team Nationality: Spithill almost made me spit up when I first saw him tell an audience Oracle is the “home team”. This man is an Aussie through-and-through. Nothing wrong with that, but he has stated in interviews that ever since 1983 (when he saw Australia win the cup) he has dedicated his life to Australia keeping the cup. In the post-race interview a few days ago he repeated his “home team” nonsense and said ETNZ is trying to “take the cup far away”. Barker, in a beautifully accurate retort said “if we win we’ll bring it closer to your home”. Indeed, Spithill might prefer a NZ win.

    Spithill thus comes across as awkward as if forced to ask for support now from the country he has loved to hate as a sailor. In addition, despite being in America, Oracle also has a reputation for disdain towards its home country and especially the cities lived-in by Ellison. A real-estate agent just told me the Oracle CEO bought a house in SF to watch the races and immediately demanded the neighbor, an elderly lady in retirement, cut down her trees so he could get a better view. She said no at first, since they were clearly on her property. Then Oracle lawyers promptly arrived and asked her if she really, really wanted them to wipe out all her retirement money in a messy legal fight and leave her for dead. With a home team like that who needs enemies?

    ETNZ, in stark comparison, has used a large percentage of funds direct (kick-started) from their government and held discussion about how the money spent will benefit taxpayers (jobs, business, trade, etc.).

  7. Boat Nationality: Both boats were built in New Zealand, which if advertised more might help recoup some of the national investment. More interesting than that, however, is the ETNZ boat was designed by the American team that won the cup back from NZ in 1988 with a catamaran. So the ETNZ boat is essentially a successor American boat to the 1988 campaign, while the Oracle boat is apparently not American at all. It may even be French, since they have boasted about finding their initial wing designer in France. Whatever the Oracle boat is or isn’t, to me ETNZ is really sailing the American boat design.
  8. Waterfront access for dinghies: Perhaps the most annoying fact of the entire event is that it is inaccessible to the common person. Super-yachts need more berthing space about as much as anyone needs a hole in the head. Those who aren’t billionaires, on the other hand, really REALLY need a place to launch a performance dinghy in San Francisco. Basically if you’re a kid in an Optimist you’re ok because clubs will support that but once you graduate to something fun where do you go? And if you’re a young professional ready to splash down some money and go for a hot ride…you basically can’t unless you go far away. The waterfront has no facilities and no support. None. That is perhaps the biggest oversight of this entire event. Even rockets are more accessible than high performance dinghy sailing to people who live in SF.

Those are some of the major notes. In summary, ahead I see a sea-change in the boat-building industry and very little change in the American sailing community. Globally we’ll get more efficient, faster and more fun boats of all sizes yet unfortunately this will not lead to any more American kids rushing to get into sailing.

I have a bunch more items I’m tracking but just wanted to share the biggest and most recent ones. Let me know if you have others to add or discuss.

Posted in Sailing, Security.

4 Responses

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  1. David Caddick says

    Hi Davi,

    It has been amazing to watch the speed and also how close they can get. But what really “talks” to me is the noise that we are getting in the telecasts from the boats themselves while underway. I was lucky enough to be on board a Maxi (Ondine VII) in the Kenwood Cup in Hawaii back in 1988 and the noise as you ease off the sheets from those big 110 Lewmar’s is amazing and still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

    Back then the sheets from the jib/genoas were 3/8 stainless steel cable then spliced into a Kevlar sheets with a protective cord that was under about 3 – 7 ton of pressure when heading to windward. As you ease off to a reach the noise comes from the deck vibrating as the load is eased off – it is unreal.

    Anyway, I was lucky enough to get to be out “Match Racing” on a maxi offshore of Hawaii Yacht Club with Dennis Conner at the helm – and to be circling another 80 footer while getting ready to put in the grind on the headsail was something else. Even more to be up on the bow heading out to the wing mark with only 100 feet separating 4 Maxis surfing down the waves offshore in Hawaii.

    Golden moments, enjoy, but keep up the fight for launching high speed dinghy’s from SF


  2. Dave Caddick says

    Hi Davi,

    What can I say, fantastic video for me as an ex-maxi sailor in my day that has been around San Francisco Bay, while I have not been sailing for some time the noise from the on-board action brings it straight back. When they are easing off the winch and you hear the vibration of the pressure easing on the whole boat – that is music to me and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

    Back in 1988 I was lucky enough to be in Hawaii for the Kenwood Cup onboard Ondine VII racing off shore, and in one event we had Dennis Conner at the helm competing in a Match Race with another Maxi circling each other looking for an opening before the start in the offshore swell – breathing hard on the grinder, you bet ;-)

    But what a blast, the sheets on the jib/genoa were 3/8 stainless steel that was then spliced to Kevlar and when heading to windward this was under anything from 3 – 7 ton of pressure, so when this was eased as you rounded the mark you could feel the vibration from the deck as it unloaded, almost like the whole boat was easing a big sigh of relief – awesome!!!

    Enjoy ;-)
    Dave Caddick

  3. Davi Ottenheimer says

    Hi Dave,

    Great comment! I know what you mean exactly. The loads on the lines are astronomical and the creaking and vibrations are a sweet experience. Sailing the big boats is like constantly tuning a suspension bridge that you’re standing on — the pressure and noise goes right into your bones.

    You reminded me of another point of interest. The lines on these boats are all completely new technology. The carbon stays have been custom built as single continuous fibers wrapped for strength. It’s an amazing new process that will undoubtedly change and benefit other industries.

    Even more interesting are the lines on the winches. Instead of steel of yesteryear that you mention, now they are spectra or similar synthetic core (no water weight, no stretch) that have to be hand-run through a new and special cover material. A better cover had to be invented because all previous known covers would melt from heat generated on the winches during turns.

    Reminds me of diesel supercars that are winning the Le Mans. Diesel engines are so much more powerful than gasoline they forced the invention of better transmissions to prevent the gears from stripping.

    I haven’t seen anyone talk about these new lines. Maybe I’ll try and get some samples to write about after the racing is over. Can’t wait to try them out on the A-Cat. The lines are more interesting to me than the sail material they’ve been developing. One of the local A-Cats actually started using that black carbon sail material from Oracle. It felt a lot like heavy oiled canvas and he was slow. Probably doesn’t translate well to dinghy sailing. These new lines will surely benefit many people, from dinghies to climbers.

  4. David Caddick says

    Hi Davi,

    My take on this before the result tomorrow.


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