A couple of years ago I did some work with the folks at Zoomslide for Team New Zealand. The decision to hold the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda was still fresh, and so was Grant Dalton’s language describing it.
Here’s what I like about Dalton: he’s at least the worlds second best America’s Cup CEO. Sure, he’s had some bad work days, and earned himself a few critics. But let’s say you wanted to win the America’s Cup. You’d have to talk to him: he’s got more experience in that particular domain than anybody currently outside of the Oracle camp.
He wasn’t the only one taken by surprise. Cynics – which the America’s Cup has always had in droves – reckoned it was chosen simply as a hard-to-get-to location, hitting the budgets of all the other teams harder than it would the American defenders. Who knows how much truth there is in that.
But now the challengers are arriving and launching their kit, and they (and others) are posting video of themselves hooning around the Great Sound in their foiling catamarans. Whatever logistical challenges Bermuda presents, the Great Sound appears to present a reasonable stretch of flat water and steady, predictable trade winds.
Back in San Fran, wind and waves contributed to both Oracle’s capsize and ETNZ’s nosedive. The new boats represent a massive development. The old ones were 72 feet: these ones are just 50 feet. But the new ones are also faster, spending roughly the entire race up on hydrofoils. That means they’re also much more precarious: the chance of a capsize is high, at all times.
To put that in perspective: if a 3m foiling Moth class hits the “wrong” sized wave, the foil simply pops straight out of the water, leading directly to a capsize. Scaling that minuscule and highly probable error up to a 50 footer at 40 knots (about 70 km/h), flat water is probably a legitimate safety concern.
On the other hand, it may have the opposite effect. Bermuda is the maritime equivalent of a brand new asphalt auto race track. It’s possible that it encourages greater risk taking. A more diverse area like the Hauraki Gulf (or any open water) would probably encourage safer boats.
Regardless, they’re still capsizing. Oracle tipped out a couple of weeks ago. And Team New Zealand got pretty close to it this morning NZ time. This is good for two reasons. First, it means the boats are more interesting. Second, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in practice sessions helps them optimise speed and safety during the white heat of racing, which starts on May 26.
I heard some gossip about ETNZ’s peddle power. The picture painted by the team, the other crews and the media is that there’s a trade off: pedals yield more power, but are less convenient, taking longer for the crew to clip in after moving about the boat in manoeuvres.
But there may be another advantage: with pedals, several sets of hands are freed up from grinding duties. It’s not inconceivable that the crew can trim and grind at the same time.
Mostly, the grinders produce hydraulic pressure which is then used to make constant, minuscule adjustments to sail shape and foil attitude. I don’t know, but it may also be within the rules for grinders to produce other forms of stored energy, such as electricity. That means they could grind with their feet and control numerous aspects of the yacht through a touch console, such as luff tension, foil attitude and sail position. That’s a rumour, anyway.
As with the 2014 AC, foiling and wing trimming will dominate this event, but in a different way: a lot will come down to cornering. All crews are now foiling in all directions in straight lines, upwind and downwind. All crews are now foiling through nearly every gybe. But only some crews are foiling through most tacks. All crews are still developing this skill, especially in the lower wind strengths. Everyone will want to be the team who can tack on foils in the lightest wind, like this:
Also, the bottom mark transition from downwind to upwind has never been so complex. It look like boats are either staying on foils but skidding rapidly to leeward, or plunging off foils and copping a speed hit. That may be an equation to which only serious racing is going to provide answers.
So, my predictions? The Swedish team Artemis dominated a bunch of informal practice races that took place shortly before ETNZ turned up last week. They look fast and stable (and probably, fast because stable). The American team Oracle and British team BAR are probably the next in the queue, followed by the Japanese in SoftBank and the French in Groupama.
ETNZ is a relatively unknown quantity since they elected not to take part in the first round of practice races. But we know they’re among the most efficient foiling experts (hell, they practically invented it within the AC), keeping good speed and stability through most tacks in any kind of breeze.
I like to recall that in 2014, Dean Barker of ETNZ (now of SoftBank) consistently out-sailed Jimmy Spithill ( who’s still with Oracle), until the lay day allowed Oracle to make some game-changing alterations to their boat. Check out the start of race 1 in San Francisco. Since his unceremonious departure from ETNZ Barker has transformed team Japan and will have several points to prove over both Spithill and Dalton.
Meanwhile, ETNZ helm Peter Burling has totally ruled over Artemis skipper Nathan Outteridge in the high performance 49er class for the last 4 years, winning every single event, including a comprehensive Olympic gold. He also beat Outteridge to #1 in the Moth world champs. So no doubt they’ll be tough. But I need to see more before making any bolder predictions.
Now all I need to do is figure out the minimum deal I can strike with Sky to watch the darn races.