It is like ballet on water but much more hazardous. Every crew member has a task; each of their movements has to be precise. The most critical phase is the start, as the boat picks up speed. While Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill steers the 15-meter-long catamaran around a marker buoy, two other crew members, known as grinders, leap across the other side of the boat to power the winches, squeezing every ounce of strength from their muscles. The grinders generate the hydraulic pressure needed to raise or lower the boat in the water – executed at the press of a button by the skipper.
Although sailing is traditionally seen as a genteel sport, pitting man and boat against the elements, technology has taken on a growing importance in the cutthroat world of top-level racing. The America’s Cup is the pinnacle, with teams and their backers investing millions in the hunt for success while this year drawing on the skills of prominent names from two other high-velocity sports, Formula 1 and cycling.
For several weeks, Bermuda – a former British colony in the Atlantic, two hours by plane from New York, will be the focus of the sailing world as it stages the 35th America’s Cup. The competition has come a long way since John Cox Stevens, an American commodore and founder of the New York Yacht Club, brought a yacht to the United Kingdom in 1851 with a plan to race it against British boats for money.
Mr. Stevens' schooner, America, beat 15 yachts from Britain’s Royal Yacht Squadron, and the America’s Cup was born. From then on, huge and elaborately rigged yachts have competed for the so-called Auld Mug, a large silver jug considered to be the most valuable sailing trophy in the world.
Nowadays, these finely-tuned catamarans don’t have sails fluttering in the wind like they used to. Instead they are equipped with a 24-meter-high, airplane-like wingsail, whose back flap is the only movable part. The foils of the double-hulled vessel provide the buoyant force: With their aerodynamic profile, they help lift the boat right out of the water.
The America’s Cup has always been a demonstration of technological marvels.
“The first one to fly wins,” says Thomas Hahn, a 45-year-old German who studied aviation. The bespectacled Bavarian works for BMW, the German carmaker and Oracle’s technology partner. He is responsible for eking out the marginal gains that could be the difference between victory – in Oracle’s case, defending the America’s Cup, or defeat.
For example, the shaping of the hull is a secret science. Mr. Hahn explains that if the angle of the blade-like sections on the foils are incorrect at such high speeds, air bubbles can form and suddenly cause the boat to fall. With the technology shrouded in so much secrecy, it is little wonder that Emirates Team New Zealand, one of the six participants, spent much of their time preparing away from prying eyes around their Auckland base.
The America’s Cup has always been a demonstration of technological marvels but progress has only really accelerated in recent times. “One hundred years of innovation only increased the speed of yachts in the America’s Cup by four knots,” said Mr. Hahn. But in the last six years, “the boats have become 40 knots faster.”
With the regatta less than a week away, all of the teams have now arrived on Bermuda’s Great Sound, readying themselves for the competition. Nothing is left to chance. Oracle and its founder Larry Ellison have ploughed $100 million into their cup defense. After each training session, the American boat is hoisted out of the water and disappears behind closed doors.
Mr. Spithill, the skipper, is going for a hat-trick of victories, which would be a record. When the regatta last took place in 2013 in San Francisco, he oversaw one of sport’s greatest ever comebacks. Oracle were trailing Team New Zealand 8-1 – “staring down the barrel of a gun,” as Mr. Spithill put it, before turning the final on its head to win 9-8 and retain the Auld Mug.
Because Oracle won last time, they are allowed to choose the location for defending their trophy. The team has been training in Bermuda for a year. The catamaran in motion is a sight to behold. At around 15 knots, the boat rises from the water and suddenly speeds up, held in place only by its L-shaped foils. The flight phase is crucial: if the boat gets out of shape, water resistance can cause severe damage to the hull.
Mr. Spithill is regarded as one of the world’s finest skippers but this phase requires the utmost concentration. “Whoever is too cautious loses,” Mr. Hahn said. “Whoever is too aggressive also loses.” BMW has developed a multi-functional helm that maintains a precise course, while various buttons are used simultaneously to adjust the foils and rudders.
Underlining the parallels with Formula 1, the most celebrated competition in motor sport, Oracle has recruited the former race car driver Alex Zanardi to help redevelop the boat’s steering system. The Italian, who lost both his legs in a racing accident at Germany’s Lausitzring in 2001, has used his experience of aerodynamics to improve the streamlining of the boat’s air flow.
Other teams have also dipped into Formula 1 in a bid to boost their chances. The team principal of Britain’s representative, Land Rover BAR, is Martin Whitmarsh, who previously headed the McLaren F1 team. The British have never won the competition they founded some 166 years ago. Incidentally, Land Rover BAR will be skippered by Ben Ainslie, a four-time Olympic champion whose tactical abilities helped Oracle make their remarkable comeback in 2013.
Meanwhile, Team New Zealand are counting on two wheels rather than four as they try to put the memory of bitter defeat behind them. They have replaced the arm winches with bike-style pedals and have brought in sprint cyclist Simon van Velthooven to lead their efforts. With only six crew members allowed on board, the team is gambling on pedal power to deliver them the trophy.
The design was originally scoffed at by the rest of the field, but reports from training suggest the pedals have provided Team New Zealand with a 40 per cent power boost, while Oracle are now also said to have installed a cycle station behind the skipper’s position at the helm. The American team does have one big advantage: They can sit and watch their five rivals fight it out in qualifying races, before they meet the winner in the best-of-13 race final starting on June 17.
This article first appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]