On a wing and a dare

“Madam, there is no second.” Little did the Marquis of Anglesey know that the words he whispered in the ear of an enquiring Queen Victoria as she watched America beat the cream of English racing yachts in 1851, would set the tenor for the winner-takes-all philosophy that has pervaded the 159-year history of the famous event named after the winning yacht.

Indeed, it is a fundamental irony of the America’s Cup that the Deed of Gift that has governed the world’s longest-running international sporting event was intended “to promote friendly competition between nations”. There are few, if any, enduring sporting events in which the principal objective has been more glaringly observed in the exception than the rule.

The acrimonious and litigious twists and turns adopted by the numerous defenders and challengers in interpreting the Deed of Gift over the 33 races during the Cup’s history have, in all probability, put more money into the pockets of lawyers than they have into the boats created for the event.

So it was no surprise that the 33rd America’s Cup, sailed off Valencia, Spain in February this year, added yet further torrid and sorry tomes to the legal bookcases in the library of the New York Court of Appeal. This august institution brought down numerous legal decisions over the three years that it took the Swiss Defender, Ernesto Bertarelli’s Alinghi V and its selected Challenger, Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle Racing USA to reach the start line. In fact, the last finding was only handed down by a judge barely weeks before the racing began.

Alinghi V was penalised during pre-race manoeuvres in both races. Alinghi V was penalised during pre-race manoeuvres in both races.

For all of the tedious action in the courtroom, and the ceaseless jibes in the media between the two protagonists, it became increasingly obvious that both parties were evolving extraordinary yacht designs that were of a scale and technology that ventured deep into uncharted engineering territory. So when the day of reckoning finally came on February 13 – after three false starts while waiting for the right conditions – all eyes were on the two wraith-like 90-foot creatures that were towed out to sea off the Port of Valencia.

Although the craft and technology employed were both extraordinary and ground-breaking, few expected the competition to be either close or remotely engaging, with the boats racing across a 20-mile (32km) course on which the chance of being physically out of sight of one another was a very real possibility. Indeed, the serious betting money suggested that, with two craft of such extreme and radically different design, the outcome of the Cup was likely to be decided within five minutes of both boats crossing the start line in race one.

On a wing and a dare
  1. Wing mast is 223ft tall, 75 per cent of the wingspan of an A380 Airbus.
  2. Up to 250 sensors on the boat provide feedback on performance and stresses.
  3. Rear part of the wing has nine flaps, all of which can be independently trimmed.
  4. Wing is made of aeronautical film over carbon-fibre structure.
  5. The area of the three hulls is equivalent to almost three tennis courts.
  6. Film extensions at the back of both crossbeams improve aerodynamics.
  7. Helmsman steers from two narrow platforms on the rear crossbeam.
  8. Crew lie on the outer hull to improve righting moment.
  9. Non-polluting polymer can be released from the hull to assist hydrodynamics.
  10. Curved dagger boards provide vertical as well as horizontal lift.
  11. Inverted bow reduces bow wave by ‘submarining’ when required.
  12. Large generator in the main hull provides drive to all winches for sail hoisting and trimming.
  13. Bowsprit extends overall length to 135ft.
  14. Wing mast exerts less compression on the hull than a conventional rig.
  15. Narrow gap between the two sections of the wing enhances air-flow and lift.
  16. Hundreds of tell-tales in the wing indicate air-flow performance.
  17. Wind direction and speed at the top of the mast varies greatly from water level so wind indicators are placed at the top of the mast and on each hull.

Much to everyone’s surprise, the start provided more excitement than had been expected as, first, Alinghi V incurred a pre-start penalty for a close-quarters manoeuvre that threatened a collision, and then BMW Oracle stalled her wing/sail, letting Alinghi gain a handy lead up the first leg, while the American boat struggled to find first gear.

However, it soon became clear that despite her two tonnes of additional weight. BMW Oracle could more than match Alinghi V, first catching, then swiftly overhauling the Swiss boat as they both worked upwind.

On a wing and a dare

The betting shops only began to open their tills as the boats bore away at the first top mark, some 45 minutes after the start, when the supposed downwind superiority of Alinghi V failed to materialise. BMW Oracle’s windward hull stayed airborne more consistently than that of Alinghi V and stretched her lead to win the race by a massive 15 minutes.

From there, it seemed the writing was on the wall for the Alinghi V team. New Zealander Brad Butterworth, skipper of Alinghi V, is usually a man of few, albeit well-chosen words, so his terse reply to a journalist’s question as to what he made of BMW Oracle’s performance after Race 1 said much of the seemingly hopeless nature of the remainder of his Cup defence. “What do you want me to say? They sailed from behind us to in front of us. They couldn’t have come off the start line in a worse position and then they ended up in a strong position. That’s speed with a capital ‘S’.”

On a wing and a dare

Sure enough, ‘Speed with an S’ was the ultimate decider of the event, with BMW Oracle winning the second in the best-of-three races by five minutes to take the ‘Auld Mug’ (as the large and rather ugly America’s Cup trophy is often known) back to America.

On a wing and a dare

So why did BMW Oracle win so convincingly and what was so exceptional about this massive trimaran?

BMW Oracle’s vital statistics (see diagram) say as much about scale as they do of the engineering challenges that needed to be overcome in ensuring that she prevailed throughout the regatta.

With a hull plan that covers the equivalent of nearly three tennis courts, and a wing/sail as tall as a 20-storey building, this carbon fibre and kevlar dragster seemed to dwarf her opponent, despite coming out of the same design rules.

The Deed of Gift for the America’s Cup permitted yachts of 90 feet in length and the same in beam, so it was clear that multihulls would be the boat of choice for both Challenger and Defender. Nevertheless, the BMW Oracle team surprised many by choosing a trimaran; a configuration that is generally faster than a catamaran in stronger winds, but which is significantly heavier and usually requires more breeze to lift the central hull. On paper, at least, the concept would struggle against a catamaran in lighter airs; precisely the conditions anticipated during winter in Valencia.

Rigging the huge beasts gives an idea of the size and complexity of the hardware on these monsters. Rigging the huge beasts gives an idea of the size and complexity of the hardware on these monsters.

While the measurement rule requires a maximum waterline length of 90 feet when the boat lies at rest, there are numerous ways of extending the effective hull length, which, in turn, converts to increased boat speed. One clear advantage in selecting a trimaran is that the maximum length relates to the central hull, and not to the outer ‘floats’ which, in BMW Oracle’s case, are more than 100 feet long. Also, only one float is in the water when the rig is powered up.

Add a long bowsprit from which to set an enormous downwind sail, as well as curved foils in the outer hulls to provide extra lift, and suddenly an effective waterline length almost 50 per cent longer than the actual hull is created, allowing the soaring wing/sail to be managed with a high level of control.

Without doubt, the wing was the winning factor for BMW Oracle. Involving some 20,000 man hours of research, development and construction, a team of 30 scientists and engineers, led by Mike Drummond and talented aeronautical engineer Joseph Ozanne, produced a 200-foot foil that almost matches the wingspan of an A380 Airbus. And the flying similarities and analogies don’t end there.

Team principle Larry Ellison (left) and a fully rigged-up James Spithill discuss tactics.
Team principle Larry Ellison (left) and a fully rigged-up James Spithill discuss tactics.

The structure of the wing, built in kevlar and carbon fibre, is covered with a thin shrinkable aeronautical film that is bonded and ironed onto the frame to create a taut fit – memories come to mind of model aeroplane building days. The whole structure articulates vertically in two parts to enhance airflow and, as with the flaps on the back of an Airbus wing, the trailing edge of the foil is divided into eight sections, each separately controlled to power-up or de-power the rig, as required.

Weighing the equivalent of the sail and the rig that preceded it during trials, the wing provided more direct power and a much higher level of control and predictability than the ‘conventional’ sail that the Alinghi V team selected.

The hours-long logistics of simply raising and lowering this monstrous and powerful wing onto its single ball joint caused many sleepless nights for designers and crew alike. Indeed, so concerned was the team that the wing might be damaged in the process that it was left rigged in its sailing configuration for the entire week of the event, requiring a three-man crew to run nightshifts, simply feathering the wing into the wind, while the boat sat at its overnight moorings.

get around the top mark and then hold on for the ride downwind

Not surprisingly, the high-tech features of the boat pervaded more than just the wing; 250 digital sensors throughout the boat provided feedback on stresses and performance to a central database – sensor overload alarms were apparently a constant accompaniment during racing – while PDA-style wristband computers for the trimmers, and a heads-up instrument display in the skipper’s sunglasses attached to a wireless computer backpack, saved many kilos of weight in instrument wiring around the boat.

So, with all of this technology and lightweight construction, how does this $A11million leviathan perform? In a word, astonishingly!

Travelling at three times the speed of the wind means that, in as little as six knots (11km/h) of breeze, BMW Oracle can wind up to an incredible 18 knots (34km/h) of boat speed upwind, moving quickly to 30 knots (56km/h) or more downwind under her massive gennaker. Just as remarkably, in more than ten knots (19km/h) of upwind breeze – which forms the lower end of the performance bracket for most grand prix yachts – BMW Oracle is already overpowered and proving a real handful for her skipper and crew.

These boats are fast, but seaworthy they are not. Like a Formula One racing car, these highly-tuned machines require a flat track, as even small waves on the course can spell potential disaster; reason enough for selecting the light winds and flat seas typical of winter afternoons off Valencia.

Even in such gentle breezes, the specialised techniques required to sail a boat of this nature are so radically different from conventional multihulls that the hottest club racing yachtsman would be of little use as crew aboard BMW Oracle. Indeed, even the boat’s skipper, Australian James Spithill and many of his top gun America’s Cup crew required specific training on extreme multihull sailing from the likes of Australian A Class Catamaran World champion, Glenn Ashby and French multihull legend, Franck Cammas in order to harness and control the power that the boat generated.

After the event was over, Spithill, in an interview liberally interspersed with the word “cool”, graphically described the borderline control exercised over these machines.

“We built a couple of round-the-buoys dragsters,” he said. “It did make it a bit of a handful as you started to get overpowered in the upper end (10 knots-plus). But that’s what we learnt in multihulls really; just try and get upwind with as much sail as you can, somehow get around the top mark and then hold on for the ride downwind.”

Watching the two boats in their first contest, flying upwind like a pair of prehistoric birds gliding low over a glassy sea, their scale seemed to belie their speed. It was only as the observer’s view moved aft to the dwarfed, but powerful umpires’ boats running flat chat to keep on their tails that a full appreciation of their speed could be gained.

So much for the yacht and its capabilities, but what of the crew that had to tame this beast?

Needless to say, experience, fitness and agility are essential qualities for America’s Cup crew, but for this yacht so, too, was a sense of balance and a respect for heights. Safety and access nets strung between the hulls were abandoned early in the boat’s testing on the grounds of their wind resistance. Their absence meant that crew members had to perform high-wire acts when they left the main hull or to hang limpet-like to the bare outer hulls high above the water to increase righting moment when they were not working the rig or hoisting sails.

Nor was the skipper spared the vertigo; James Spithill spent his time at the wheel perched high on one or other of the two remote steering pods on the boat’s aft beam, frequently ‘flying’ some 30 feet above the water as the windward hulls became airborne. In addition, he was forced to run precariously along the narrow beam between the two steering pods each time he tacked the boat.

Top: Oracle’s windward hull was often over 30ft (10m) above the water. Inset: Smiles all the way for the winning skipper James Spithill.
Top: Oracle’s windward hull was often over 30ft (10m) above the water.
Inset: Smiles all the way for the winning skipper James Spithill.

As if that were not challenge enough, crew members also performed their duties in clothing that more closely resembled ski-wear than sailing gear. Combined with the induced windchill factor created by sailing an unprotected boat at 20 knots in 5C temperatures, it made for less than typical Mediterranean sailing conditions.

Although it has been some years since Australia challenged for the America’s Cup in its own right, there were several Australians playing pivotal roles in the BMW Oracle team, not least 29-year-old Spithill, whose name now goes into the books, not only as a winning America’s Cup helmsman, but also as the youngest of that elite group.

Crewmen Will McCarthy and Joe Newton rounded out the Australian contingent in a team comprising some eight nationalities, only two of whom were Americans, such is the multi-national nature of today’s America’s Cup racing.

With the winning American team promising to return the event to a multi-challenger format with fair rules, the future of the America’s Cup seems more promising – at least until the next court case – but the future for BMW Oracle and Alinghi V is a deal less certain.

With less than 100 nautical racing miles under their hulls, neither boat has proven their full potential and, in all probability, as the America’s Cup moves on to another design formula, they never will. Nor can it be imagined that such racing thoroughbreds could remotely suit corporate charter or backpacker adventures in some holiday backwater.

Sadly, in all likelihood these extraordinary yachts will, like the prehistoric birds they resemble, be consigned to history as instant museum pieces, although the prospect of building a museum large enough to house BMW Oracle may be grounds to see her suffer the Berlin Wall treatment, memorialised in small framed pieces on numerous mantelpieces around the world.

As for Alinghi V, her fate is probably even grimmer. After all, where the America’s Cup is concerned, there is no second.