For the past few months we've been following the construction of the AC45 in Warkworth, and this week had our first glimpse of her out sailing.
The quick recap is that the AC45 is a one design catamaran, designed to be a forerunner to the AC72 open design, to be used in the 34th America's Cup, replacing the monohulls that have been used for all but two of the 33 Matches sailed in the last 160 years.
We've been skeptical of many of the claims made for the use of large catamarans, in the America's Cup. Particularly when those comments are made by people we know have very little sailing experience, and are just talking up the market.
It is easy to make claims about using high-octane boats in the America's Cup. The veracity of the argument depends on who is pushing the line. Top of their game multihull zealots make the most compelling case. But in the end it boils down to whether you think that the America's Cup is a pure match racing event, or a game for the fastest boats on the planet.
In the Sail-World reader survey that later concept went too far for most sailors who would rather see the America's Cup stay pretty much the way it has been - sailed in monohulls and with complex match racing moves using high technology yachts weighing in excess of 20 tonnes, with most of that weight in the with massive lead keel bulbs - providing the momentum which is the basis of many of the tactics which are just not possible in a much lighter boat.
While the spin doctors make great claims for a design which is still on the drawing board. It was not until this week that sailing fans got the opportunity to see the AC45 in action, and could extrapolate that performance across into her big sister, the AC72 - and then make comparisons with the the design used for the five America's Cups (28-32 Matches).
We do have to admit that while we have heard plenty of sailors bemoan the fact that the monohull has bee dropped from the 34th America's Cup, we have never heard someone from outside the sport say they are anything less than looking forward to seeing the cats in action.
Of course, there was the discussion we had with Steve Clark, a top multihull sailor, designer and builder, as well as being one of the great thinkers of the sport, as to why the America's Cup should not be sailed in the fastest boats possible using the latest technology. In taking the side of the monohull, we were defending the indefensible, and soon knew it. Steve soon had us hog-tied on that one.
A few months ago we had breakfast with one of then BMW Oracle Racing's ambassadors who midway through the proceedings scribbled out a two column list of sailing media and others. On one side were those who favoured/accepted that the multihull was the right boat for the 34th America's Cup, and on the other was list of those in the monohull camp.
Your humble scribe's name was top of the monohull zealots list, and we freely admitted to being guilty as charged.
Further several others in the monohull column had arrows drawn across to the other side, as being those who were 'seeing the light'. But there was no such arrow alongside our name.
We've never made any secret of our preference for a monohull, to an 80ft box rule with unlimited rig, but which must be able to race in winds above 30kts - and obviously at the bottom end of say 3-4kts - or whatever they would start 18ft skiffs with their big rigs.
One of the lessons from the 33rd America's Cup was that despite having a near open rule, limited really only by length, the two boats could have been a lot closer than was the case. Had Alinghi been fitted with a wingsail, and not made a couple of very basic match racing errors at the start, the racing could have been much closer than the margins would indicate.
Our point is that the highly detailed rule formula doesn't really achieve what it sets out to do. Under the five versions of the America's Cup Class Rule used from 1992-2007, was unnecessary and there is a good chance that a simple box rule (controlling length, beam and draft) would have done the same. The open rig concept is a straight steal from the 12ft and 18ft skiffs and brings a big seamanship factor into the racing equation where potential minus mistakes equals performance. Exciting sailing event?
At the breakfast meeting we parried over what the future really was for the America's Cup, and how the game could be improved and made more sustainable.
'What was the most exciting racing we'd seen?' was one question. Our answer was this race
in the former 18ft Skiff Grand Prix Series, sailed in 30 knots plus in Auckland. We were 'umpiring' that day, but the video footage is better than any view we got on the water.
Those who have watched 18's will know that they put on a race that is worth following in any condition from 5kts upwards, and you don't need true and fair courses to provide a good race. In other words, of all the monohull types the 18ft skiff is probably the best type of boat for the America's Cup - except for one basic factor - they are too short for the 44ft minimum length specification in the Deed of Gift. Scaling the boat up to 44ft probably wouldn't work, and we don't really know how they would work in a match racing scenario, rather than their usual fleet racing format.
So that got us into the 80ft monohull territory - accepting that a canting keel was required - and that the boat would be a cross between a supermaxi, and the AC90 produced when Alinghi convened a design process that produced the type known as the AC 90, but with restricted sail area.
The two downsides with the monohull are fixed draft and the keel bulb weight.
For the America's Cup to go to the next level, there has to be a circuit of lead-in races, or an annual world championship comprising a number of events. The reason being that the circuit increases the exposure for team sponsors, and creates opportunities and revenue from venue bidding and the like.
Alinghi got onto this concept in the 32nd America's Cup with the circuit of Acts around Europe and Scandinavia, plus they got the 32nd America's cup into the position where it was the most profitable ever. The table below outlines the dimensions of the various boat types and sizes that have been proposed over the last two or three years.
| Dimension comparison between ACV5 (32 AC), AC45, AC72 (34AC), AC90 |
(AC90 is the largest monohull proposed by the Alinghi design group for the 33rd AC)
|Dimension||ACV5 ||AC45 ||AC72 ||AC90 |
| Type|| Monohull|| Catamaran|| Catamaran|| Monohull|
| LOA|| 83ft|| 45ft|| 72ft|| 90ft|
| DSP|| 24,000kg|| 1400kg|| 5,700kg|| 23,000kg|
| Draft Max|| 4,100mm|| 2700mm|| || 6,500mm|
| Mast height|| 32.5 metres|| 21.5metres|| 37metres|| 38 metres|
| Mast Weight|| 750kg|| || 1325kg|| |
| Speed - Upwind|| 10kts in 20kts|| 15kts in 20kts|| || 10kts in 20kts|
| Speed - Downwind|| 12kts in 20kts|| 30kts in 20kts|| || 20kts in 20kts|
| || || || || |
The fundamental limitation on the monohull type is the weight, and fact that airfreight for a circuit is expensive, meaning that only a ship can be used. Speed is another factor - and while the ACV5 class were one of the most efficient monohulls upwind, downwind they were unbelievably slow - making for great match racing - but dreary television once one competitor got a useful margin, as they could never be caught unless there was a major operator error aboard the lead yacht.
Deep draft (4-6.5 metres) meant that only a deep water venue could be used - usually a shipping port - which is not always a favoured sponsor location, and the required water depth is often only found offshore.
The bottom line on the paper evaluation is that the catamaran type is really the only option that offers the speed of the 18fter type, lightest displacement and shallow draft. While useful for live ballast, crew numbers are not that critical if a wingsail is used along with roller furling 'front sails'.
If we had to put our hand on heart, we'd admit that we'd only watched a few races of the last Louis Vuitton Trophy series in Auckland, on the water, most were seen via TV coverage - and many media never get on the water - just watch coverage in the media centre. We'd also have to recall that we saw one leading sailing writer, sleep through an entire America's Cup race, on the media boat, and then wake up and write a story about it.
So for all its memorable moments, the monohull racing was, on the whole, not that great. And rather than being a speed race, it was like watch two time-bombs to see which would blow up first - whether it be through operator error, or boats and sails over stressing and exploding. AC45 put on on test
This week was the first opportunity to see how the type of yacht proposed for the 34th America's Cup, would shape up, and at this stage the catamaran gets a big tick.
Launching was one of the downsides identified with the wingsailed catamaran, given the tricks inherent in getting a yacht fitted with a wingsail from hard stand into the water and out onto the race area. Towing with a tender as would be done with a conventional monohull is not an option as the yacht has to be sailed unassisted if the wind is aft of the beam, or the wingsail cannot be completely flagged.
Exiting Auckland's Viaduct harbour would be one of the more sailing world's more tricky exit routes with two sharp 90 degree turns, starting with a 270 degree turn off the dock in a 20kt breeze. The AC45's departure was accomplished with ease - a pointer to the maneuverability we were to see later on the open water.
Those who have seen the wingsail rig put onto the AC45 say it is very simple, and lowering the platform and wingsail into the water from a remote control crane requires care - but is still a fairly slick operation. Of course the upside is that special travel lifts are not longer required, and dropping a five tonne boat into the water requires a lot less substantial craning than one five times that weight.
Quite how the AC45 scales into the AC72 remains to be seen - however with care and techniques it all should be very doable.
Another plus of the wingsail and 20% displacement is that smaller tenders can be used - as there is no need for the power of the big tenders required to haul an AC monohull at speed, nor is there a requirement to have a boat capable of carrying spare mainbooms, spinnaker poles or fully battened mainsails - they don't exist in the wingsailed multihull world.
Outside the Viaduct Harbour the AC45 cantered around, and quickly flicked up in the wind to allow some rigging to be run on the sprit, before squaring way and running down the harbour. It is here that the wingsail underscores its difference from the conventional rig, with the AC45 apparently tight reaching, while a quick look behind reveals she is in fact sailing in a following breeze. Welcome to apparent wind sailing.
Past the wharves helmsman Jimmy Spithall puts the AC45 into gear and quickly she accelerates more quickly than the chase boats to 20 knots in flat water, and pins her ears back reaching down the harbour with one hull clear and a minimum of heel.
Next up is the gybe heading for North Head - accomplished with ease - on a stable platform without any of the drama associated with an ACC monohull doing the same gybe in 20knots. For the cat it is just a change of direction.
Then it is a reach down the Rangitoto Channel probably at speeds around 20kts in 15-20kts of breeze and in flat water. Again there are no issues as the AC45 assumes the low flight position - with some fine spray being visible off the leeward bow, but all is very stable and controlled.
Interestingly this is a similar sailing angle and conditions to the start of the Coastal Classic in last October, where the ORMA 60 TVS was struggling to fly a main hull, but the AC45 is operating with the windward hull occasionally in full flight, and it is obvious that with a with a little more sheet they would be in flight mode.
Another gybe and we are headed well into the inner Hauraki Gulf, with the gennaker set, Spithill lights the afterburner and the AC45 again accelerates faster then the chase boat, and for a couple of minutes or more blast along perfectly balanced and hitting speeds of over 25kts probably 30kts.
The waves are picking up a little as the breeze kicks into 25kts. A monohulled ACC yacht would be fully overloaded, crew tense and sheets bar tight, in these conditions. the AC45 look like she is sailing in 10 kts.
Our chase boat cuts around the bow of the AC45 kicking up a substantial wake, which she hits at 25kts and barely misses a beat. A slight burying of the leeward bow as she passes through the wakes, then she shakes herself off and is away again.
The gybe in the 25kt breeze is seamless. Gennaker is furled as the yacht bears away, is fully furled as she passes through the wind and the wingsail swings across, and then the gennaker is snapped on again and the speedo needle is resting against the 25kts mark again. There is none of the banging and crashing normally associated with an ACC yacht during this maneuver, in this windstrength, and of course the catamaran is travelling at twice the speed of her lead bellied counterpart.
We're now about 10 miles offshore and the AC45 turns to head for home.
There's a pause for some crew transfers, and we hear the only real noise from the AC45. It's the 'thwack... thwack' at two or three second intervals of the backstays drumming on the wingsail. We hadn't heard that sound since Valencia - the first few beats give you a real fright - after that it is just like a boy-racers exhaust just waiting for next drag off a green light.
Pushing home into a 20-25kt offshore wind, the AC45 looks comfortable - and as though she is sailing in winds less than half that strength.
Sailing angle is good and very controlled. We can't tell the angle to the breeze, but she looks to be on the layline for Rangitioto light which is about normal for a keelboat in this direction of breeze. An ACC yacht would be sailing higher but five knots or more slower. We check the speed. It varies between 13-16kts sailing to windward in 20-25kts of breeze.
Suddenly there is a rapid wind swing, or a wingsail control line slip, and the windward hulls rears high. Quickly the wingsail is eased and the hull smacks down flat, with a shower of water to windward and the AC45 slows dramatically.
Situation under control, she sheets on and is off.
Tacking is quick. So quick we looked away and missed the first. There's no noise, remember. Next time we watch and there is just a moment when both hulls are in the water as the AC45 passes through the eye of the wind, and then flight mode is resumed again.
Next tack, we put the camera on the whole maneuver. Shooting at three frames a second, the tack later counts out to be about four maybe five seconds, with the limit on the tack speed being the crews ability to cross the trampoline, rather than the AC45's ability to swing through 90 degrees.
Remember all this is being done with a jib set to help through the tack.
Upwind the crew all hike - none of the cowering under the side decks on the ACC boats, in order to reduce windage, while getting the weight outboard. It is a refreshing change.
Test pilot, Jimmy Spithill suddenly bears off and does an S-bend maneuver - from sailing hard on the wind to dead downwind, and then flicking back up onto a windward course. It's another telling moment for us, recalling an incident in the 1980 Tornado Olympic trials when we watched the two lead contenders flicking back and forth trying to bear away and get down the run in the 25-30kts breeze. They took several minutes before one made it, the other pitch-poled. At a faster speed the AC45 hardly comes off the level and the bows show no signs of dipping.
He repeats the move again and same result. she looks so comfortable and forgiving.
The next day, off Takapuna Beach the wind is down and the AC45 is out for just her third day of trialling. The wind is lighter - around 10kts. From shore her profile looks a little like an ACC yacht, until you pick up the clear wingsail which looks very futuristic. It is the jib which gives her the conventional look - remember USA-17 using hers in the first stages of the first beat of the first race in Valencia?
Then we see her bear away the gennaker is unfurled the speed goes on again, and then on the other gybe we see the spectacular, sustained hull flying which was a signature of USA-17 in the 33rd America's Cup - all in quite a light breeze. Time to reflect
What does all this tell us about large wingsailed catamarans in the America's Cup?
Will they work?
The short answer is 'Yes' - based on what we have seen to date.
In the pre-start the tactics will be different. Clearly these boats do not have the massive keel bulbs which provide the momentum to creep to windward in the pre-start without any driving force from the sails. So tactics will be much more basic. Additionally the ability of the catamarans to accelerate out of a situation will probably mean that the pre-starts will be more that which we see when sports boats are matchraced rather than the 24 tonners of the ACC era.
When Russell Coutts announced the ground rules for the 34th America's Cup in Rome in late June 2010, he talked of reducing the rules overhead of the next America's Cup. The catamaran will go a long way to cutting back on the coterie of rules advisors, coaches and umpires, along with the time spent in innumerable and interminable meetings to decide how match racing rules will be interpreted and the tactics shaped.
Match racing in catamarans will be the domain for those with a gut instinct for the sport, who can make decisions in a nanosecond, and know when to accelerate out of trouble.
Once over the startline, they will be boats that are very rewarding of correct positioning on the racecourse. As with any multihull there are huge gains to be made from being in more pressure, or a better wind angle. the trade-off has always been in the speed lost through a tack and getting over to the favoured side. The quick tacking AC45 certainly would minimise this loss, and the strength and angle gains are there for the taking.
Whether this is true of the bigger AC72 remains to be seen - plus the time taken for the crew to scramble 14 metres across the trampoline has to be factored into a tacking decision.
It is fairly doubtful whether we will see monohull type tacking duels as the ACC class used to eke out a metre of advantage. AC45 catamarans will just foot their way out of trouble.
Downwind, the AC45 and more so the AC72 will be the boat of the strong. Unless winds are very light it is unlikely we will see the wind searchers up the masts, and measured tactical conversations below. This will be the boat, particularly in San Francisco, that rewards those who are strong of heart and arm. Driving harder and faster downwind will produce a far better result than lining up for a rules advantage on the next cross. Crews that come from a 18ft skiff or Volvo Ocean Race background - used to sailing on the limit - will be the ones that will do best.
The ACC yachts never really lacked for majesty. Although they never went fast, for their size, downwind they always looked like they were, and up close sounded fully loaded. The screeching sound of a loaded sheet being eased on its drum. The flogging of a half set spinnaker. The racing squeal of grinder driven winches taking in slack sheet before being put into low gear.
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Looking at the dimension table we can see that the mast height of the AC72 is even greater than the ACC Version 5, and indeed greater than the much larger AC90 - so there is little doubt that the AC72's will be both fast and majestically impressive boats.
Technology was one area that many believe that Oracle Racing have a big advantage from their last America's Cup program into the next. To our eyes, having seen the AC45 in action, which is quite a wet, seat of the pants type of sailing it is hard to see on board computer technology having too much on the 45 minute tracks of San Francisco. While the then BMW Oracle Racing team put many hours on the water in the build up for the 33rd America's Cup, remember this was geared to working up the 120fter and their systems - and their first match race was the opening play of the first race of the America's Cup.
With crews able to compete on the 13 regatta America's Cup World Series circuit, plus a couple of years on the Extreme 40 circuit - catch up should be quite possible. And remember too, that the crew of USA-17 in the end were a group of monohull sailors, albeit very good ones, who learned to sail multihulls, rather than catamaran sailors through and through.
Probably the only issue we have is that currently we are comparing an AC45 with a much larger ACC V5.
The jump in size make comparison difficult, but go the other way and compare the AC45 with a 45 ft scale version of ACC type and there would be no doubt as to which provided the best competition and spectacle.
The cat would win - paws down.
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