ETNZ update: pedal power

Grant Dalton copped various blames for Emirates Team New Zealand’s loss to Oracle in the 2014 Americas Cup: in particular, his agreement to the lay day and his on-board role drew flak. There’s little chance we’ll see him crewing on the new boat, the lay day is no-doubt a learning experience. And one other thing is noticeably different in this edition: ETNZ’s media output.

In 2014, they crowed about their quantum developments in foiling. Armchair sailors like me watched avidly as ETNZ made thrilling breakthroughs that reinvented sailing almost as much as Russell Coutts’s new multi-hull formula.

In fact, Coutts’s contribution – to ditch slow, heavy monohulls for light, fast catamarans – was only half the story. ETNZ did the work to get foiling happening, and also, to prove that the losses in directional stability were more than compensated for by overall speed. I wouldn’t be surprised if – lacking a resident billionaire – ETNZ told an open-media story for the benefit of existing and potential sponsors.

But of course, it also gave ETNZ’s opposition an open window to gaze through. Months ahead of their own build commitments, the defender and the other challengers could all see which way ETNZ was heading.

This time round, there’s less crowing about breakthroughs and more general backstory: team member profiles, sponsor plugs, and time lapse videos of the bits in between: rigging, crew briefings, people in hi vis and rocking their multi-tools. Occasionally, there’s a bit of sailing, but usually only a few frames, and often in the distance.

So it was a cool surprise to see learn something tangible about the new boat just three months out from AC racing proper: they’ve replaced the coffee grinder winches with foot pedals. Ok!


It’s hard not to imagine their feet driving little propellors when you see them lined up like The Goodies. So what are they about, really?

Things are different these days. It’s not just a matter of a sheet to control the sail angle, and a few lines to control sail shape. Much of the critical configuration from moment to moment is adjusted through hydraulic pressure. Racing yachts have used hydraulics for decades, which is fine by the rules as long as the hydraulic pressure is human generated.

But in these new catamarans, with wing sails and hydrofoils, hydraulics are bigger than ever. For example, ETNZ’s near capsize in San Francisco was a direct result of failed hydraulic pressure. In the middle of a tack, the wing ran out of hydraulic pressure and back-winded on the new tack, causing the massive stall-out.

And hydraulics are critical for fast, efficient foiling. This is – all competitors agree – the name of the game. The one who foils best will probably sail fastest. The primary speed goal for all crews is to sail an entire race without anything but foils in the water. Once they achieve that, they’ll have a big speed advantage over anyone who can’t.

And, once achieved, those who crack the holy grail of continuous, non-stop foiling will then move on to new areas: initiating foiling in lower wind conditions; foiling safely in much higher wind conditions; optimising their course-made-good (because these boats are so fast, they never sail straight downwind, but across the wind, making for complex geometry).

In San Francisco, Oracle’s ultimate speed edge was achieved through the installation of flight controllers which could adjust the pitch, angle and cant of the foils in the same way they do on a commercial jet: frequently, constantly, and super-accurately. And that takes power.

So, the hope for ETNZ will be that by delivering more power to the foil controllers, they’ll be able to control the foils faster and more accurately. Not only that, but the foils themselves may be faster too. It could be that with more power, the crew can get more lift out of a smaller foil with less drag than a bigger foil.

Someone always comes up with some radical innovation in the America’s Cup. Australia II revolutionised keel design. Another Australian boat had a super bendy mast that created a few square feet of extra (stretchy) sail area. New Zealand’s first attempt in 1987 made use of new construction materials. And in 2014 New Zealand pioneered hydrofoils.

Some critics have said they’ve looked at pedals, and discarded them due to ergonomic loss. I think what they meant was, these boats are fiddly enough at the best of times, so the last thing you want to do as you run for your life from one side to the other is to insert yourself into some kind of bike-like contraption. Maybe there is a cost in power-generation coming out of the tacks and gybes. Well, if nothing else, that could make the start sequences interesting.

At any rate, one thing is clear. At the end of ETNZ’s own video for the launch of the new boat, there’s a single, uninterrupted shot of the boat sailing. It’s foiling along nicely. Then it bears away a few degrees, picks up speed and goes through a perfect, foiling tack. It feels like a little statement to fans and competitors.

I wish we could see more. But it looks as though that’s going to require a Sky subscription, which I really can’t be bothered with. So those of you who have one can expect some visits from me in three months time.





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