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Foiling 50's: America's Cup cats to fly again in new series - Updated

by Richard Gladwell, 25 Jun 2018 16:30 PDT 26 June 2018
The F-50's will be evolved from the AC50 class for one-design series sailing between teams. © Richard Gladwell

One of the key players within Oracle Team USA in the 34th America's Cup in San Francisco has confirmed some of the key features of a new circuit to be launched using the wing sailed multihulls used in the 35th America's Cup in Bermuda.

The story was broken in mid October 2017, just four months after the conclusion of the 35th America's Cup when Rob Mundle an Australian America's Cup commentator, author and journalist published a story on his blog. That followed an earlier report from Bermuda at the beginning of October 2017 which hinted that the series using AC50's was in its early stages and that Bermuda was a possible venue for one regatta.

In his story Mundle had several key points - with teams from USA, Sweden, Japan and France said to be involved. The notable absentees were Great Britain and New Zealand. Mundle also indicated that Louis Vuitton would be involved as a major sponsor of the series, and that award-winning Liveline TV graphics package would also be part of the broadcast.

In late January 2017, five of the six teams competing in the 2017 America's Cup, signed an agreement known as "The Framework" which contractually bound the teams to sail the 36th America's Cup in the AC50 one design catamaran used in that event.

Emirates Team NZ refused to sign the agreement. The Kiwi team went on to win the America's Cup, and last year announced they would be sailing a 75ft long foiling monohull - a type of yacht which exists as a design concept only.

Fast forward to yesterday on his hour-long video webcast, Tom Ehman revealed more of what he had been told of the new series.

Ehman is former a Vice Commodore of the 2013 and 2017 America's Cup Defender Golden Gate Yacht Club, America's Cup rules expert. Ehman now resides in San Francisco and San Diego and is well connected in most aspects of the sport. He was a leading figure in the both the 1988 and 2007-2010 America's Cup legal cases conducted in the New York Supreme Court.

Using a class known as the "F-50" - the rebadged former AC50, used in the America's Cup in Bermuda - Ehman claims that Oracle Team USA CEO, Russell Coutts has remained working on the new project, backed by team principal Larry Ellison. An enormous amount of work is understood to have gone on behind the scenes - the extent of which will be revealed when an official announcement is made.

The plan for the new series fits well with the original plans for the AC50 class, which was originally designed to pack into 40ft containers and sail on a world circuit. The 50ft hulls break down with the removal the bow section. The wingsails break into two components. Start-up issues with the class meant that teams preferred to train from their bases in Bermuda, and the AC50 circuit was no longer a practical option before the 35th America's Cup. Each team was permitted one AC50 platform, and two wingsails.

Not a new concept

Ehman described the venture as "a fabulous pro-sailing league and probably a big threat to a few other things that are going on".

In many ways, the new venture mirrors the World Sailing League - a pro circuit promoted by Coutts, Paul Cayard and sports lawyer Joao Lagos in 2005-2007. Their plan was to build a fleet of one-design 70ft catamarans, sailed between 12 teams with $2million prize money.

In comparison, the current venture seems positively modest.

The plan has always been to take several of the one-design AC50's from Bermuda, turning them into an even tighter one design (particularly in the area of daggerboards and control systems) and making the boats more robust, suitable for series sailing.

Ehman told his online audience that several key players had been signed from the 35th America's Cup claiming that well know America's Cap names from France, USA, New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain were involved. Those nationalities did not necessarily reflect the country of origin of the teams involved.

None of those Ehman named has been linked to teams in the 36th America's Cup.

Others spoken to by Sail-World said that participating teams were swapping in an out, in a state of flux, and it would seem that nothing will be certain with individuals or teams until an official announcement is made in a few weeks.

Several said that any comment would have to wait until an official announcement was made. None denied the F-50 project was well underway and was happening.

The F-50 construction and modification project is taking place at Core Builders Composite and is being run by the highly experienced Mark Turner (NZL) who headed the Shore team for Oracle Team USA in several America's Cups.

Oracle Team USA are believed to own two AC50's which were both built by Core Builders Composites who also built components for other teams in the 35th America's Cup.

Core Builders Composites Ltd is 100% owned by Oracle Racing Inc. They were the lead builder in the AC50 project and developed the tooling used in the construction of the largely one-design AC50 used by all teams in the 35th America's Cup in Bermuda.

Only six AC50's were built. Of those Emirates Team New Zealand is retaining theirs for a permanent display in Auckland.

Sail-World NZ contacted several parties believed to have a front-line involvement in the project, none would comment on the record, or even be interviewed - citing non-disclosure agreements and similar. A question as to whether 10 boats were being built was met by one with an incredulous guffaw indicating the number was off the mark.

However based on the ACWS experience, 10 teams would seem to be the minimum to make a series. The key being whether teams are given boats for their exclusive use if there are just two or four platforms onto which the racing team sets up their own wingsail carry their team advertising/sponsorship.

To generate a 10 boat fleet Core Composites would have to acquire four of the six AC50's built for the 2017 America's Cup, and then build another six new F-50's (assuming no new tooling was required). That means on the floor at Core Builders which is located in multiple buildings in a sprawling industrial estate, there would be 12 new hulls, eight existing hulls being modified to take a common daggerboard system and for other systems to be retrofitted, including the installation of battery power.

That also means 12 new crossbeams, not to mention at least six new wingsails, and that doesn't include producing a smaller upper half of the wingsail to increase the sailing range of the AC50 to be above 24kts.

Not to mention the production of 20 one-design daggerboards, or modification of existing stock (each of which was designed to be unique). A daggerboard on its own is usually an eight week project. Plus ten pods to go underneath the wingsail.

Assembling a 10 boat fleet is a massive undertaking. Even for Core where operations can be spread with wingsails being built in one facility, and hulls in another, and assembly in another. Even with Core Builders Composites very impressive facilities and expertise it is a massive project, and one that would be very hard to fly under the radar in Auckland marine industry.

Given that each if the 2017 America's Cup teams were permitted two wingsails, then best case if the F-50 organsiation had been able to acquire four AC-50 pltsforms with eight wingsails, then the project would be hinged around the retrofitting of four platforms to suit the F-50 requirements and construction of two new wingsails for a ten team competiution.

The 2009 Louis Vuitton Pacific Trophy sailed in the hiatus period while the 33rd America's Cup match was argued in the New York Suprme Court was run using ten teams, and four of the IACC V5 75ft keelboats used in the 2007 America's Cup, with teams being rotated after sailing two matches each.

Sheer logistics points to a build project that is smaller in number but nevertheless very substantial build/retrofit project being underway.

Concierge Sailing?

Ehman said that the F-50 event would be run as what he called "concierge sailing" - a basis similar to the "Boatyard" for the past two editions of the Volvo Ocean Race - where the boats are owned and maintained by a central independent organisation and the sailing teams charter the boats, or have an agreement in place for the use of the boats.

Given that the Volvo Boatyard is a substantial organisation to keep seven boats maintained in top racing shape, the shore crew for a 10 boat F-50 fleet would be a very substantial operation - with the VOR team probably ripe for the picking.

The single entity boat ownership concept has been dropped by the new owners of the Volvo Ocean Race as being too unwieldy and expensive from an organisational perspective. Six of the eight Volvo 65's will be sold after the finish of the current race. The other two are already in private ownership.

In many ways, the F-50 project is similar to the 2011-2013 America's Cup World Series run in the lead-up to the 2013 America's Cup. That event had ten teams competing in a one design series using AC45F one designs and sailed at seven venues. Some boats were either owned by teams, however, most were owned Oracle Racing/Ellison. Promoted as being contested between potential America's Cup Challengers, the ten teams were whittled down to just four Challengers in the 2013 America's Cup. A similar series was run in the 2015-2016 period, with six teams racing at nine venues.

Extending across a week, with up to three days of points racing the ACWS regattas attracted fans attendances often running into six figures, and were a pop-up sailing event on a grand scale, similar to Volvo Ocean Race stopovers. Points from the 2015-16 ACWS were carried over into the 2017 America's Cup, with ACWS winner Land Rover BAR taking 2pts into the Qualifiers and second-placed Oracle Team USA taking one point forward.

Talent dispersed

Of the six helmsmen involved in the 35th America's Cup, only two, Franck Cammas (FRA) and Nathan Outteridge (AUS) are not yet confirmed as being signed up for the 36th America's Cup.

Cammas issued a statement last week, after part of the Team France base was destroyed by fire, saying that he was still seeking sponsor support for an America's Cup campaign. Currently, he is sailing a Norauto backed foiling GC32 on the GC32 World Tour. The Ben Ainslie skippered INEOS Team UK recently announced they would be joining for the second regatta of that series next week in Portugal.

Nathan Outteridge is lining up this week in the Nacra 17 at Kieler Woche with his sister, Hayley a former 49erFX sailor as a crew. They placed sixth in their first race. Time will tell if that is a forerunner to a 2020 Olympic campaign, but an Olympic campaign wouldn't take the Artemis Racing helmsman and double Olympic medalist out of the F-50 circuit equation.

Outteridge's crew in the 49er Iain Jensen has joined Ainslie's new America's Cup team INEOS Team UK.

The other AC50 helmsmen have all joined America's Cup teams. Jimmy Spithill is with Luna Rossa, Dean Barker to American Magic, Ben Ainslie to INEOS Team UK and Peter Burling to Emirates Team New Zealand.

Teams are expected to be organised as professional sailing teams only without any requirement for a nationality clause or an entering yacht club.

Ehman told his online Facebook audience that he expected the new F-50 circuit could be similar to the Indian Wells Masters tennis tournament backed by Larry Ellison and held at Indian Wells Tennis Gardens, near Palm Springs, Southern California, after the software mogul purchased, what is now a 20 court and two-stadium complex in 2009. Ellison's personal wealth equates to just over 30% of New Zealand's GDP.

Ehman's information is that Core Builders Composites are building or converting AC-50's into the new F-50 class, for use by an expected 10 teams.

Simplified features

Converting to a one-design will see several of the features of the AC-50 removed. The F-50 will be powered electrically (as is the AC75) to provide the pump up the hydraulic pressure necessary to run the on-board systems.

The crews will reduce to five from the six that sailed the AC-50's. It is not known what functions will be driven by manual power - the standard AC50 had a grinder driven wingsail trimming winch.

It is likely that the teams would just be fitted with just one set of AP (All Purpose) daggerboards which are optimised for winds above 10kts.

The one-design concept does impose limitations on the shape of the event and racing.

For the America's Cup in Bermuda using AC-50, a single sized wingsail, with light weather and All Purpose daggerboards, plus tips the event was limited to sailing in a wind band of 6kts-24kts,

Below six knots the AC50's were not able to sail a downwind leg - even with high-lift light airs daggerboards fitted. The use of just a set of lower lift AP daggerboards would raise that limit to 8kts maybe more. At the top end of the range, 24kts is the tops - maybe less at 22-23kts. The F-50 will have to be configured to be able to race comfortably in conditions typical of San Francisco.

The lesson from both ACWS series at a variety of venues is that a good supply of wind was more essential than the dollars ponied up for an Event Fee, by backers. With an uncooperative wind/weather there is no TV exposure, and that in turn creates financial difficulties for teams who are reliant on commercial sponsor funding and achieving a promised level of audience reach. Similarly there are issues for the teams with VIP and sponsor hosting in inclement weather.

A more likely competition formula would be ten teams, sailing four platforms with ten wingsails. One pair of F-50's would sail two 20 minute matches, while the shore teams set the wingsails onto two other platforms in a pit area (a task which typically takes 40-60 minutes). At the conclusion of the first pair's racing, a second group would be rotated into the race area, and Teams 5 & 6 would be set up in the pit zone, and so-on.

While there was a tender/sale offer put out for the race management equipment and boats from the 2017 America's Cup regatta, it is believed that the gear necessary to run a F-50 World Series has been retained/acquired by the new management organisation.

Ehman claims that the entry fee for the F-50 is a hefty USD$5million. That gets teams access to the boats and ability to sell sponsorship off the broadcast package that is being put together for the new series.

The claimed entry fee compares with the USD$2million entry for the 36th America's Cup, plus USD$1million performance bond fee.

A point of interest will be whether the F-50 organisers stick with their largely subscription TV channel rights model, or if they follow in the wake of 36th America's Cup organisers and have a preference for free to air broadcasters.

Teams are expected to be initially financed by wealthy owners, rather than be run as sailor-driven campaigns on a strictly commercial basis, making the purported $5million entry fee somewhat incidental.

Teams have to provide their own boats for the 36th America's Cup, and in both events they get to raise their own team sponsorship. Team size for an F-50 program would be expected to be less than 20% of an America's Cup team and could be comparable with a Volvo OR team of about 16 sailing crew (11 on board) and 13 shore crew. On that basis an F-50 team could be expected to total about 20 shore and sailing crew including management and sponsor support.

Ehman claimed that with the entry fee at that level it would be more than possible to recoup the cost with sponsorship based on the broadcast package that was being put together for the four-event per year Series.

Circuit to cover three continents

The regattas are believed to be set down for Sydney, Europe, Bermuda and San Francisco, with the series opening in Sydney. Ehman claimed the Sydney Series would start in early 2019, other sources have it starting in the last quarter of 2018.

A key issue will be how the series is positioned alongside the America's Cup.

In the past, the America's Cup holders have come down very hard on those who attempt ambush marketing of events which seek, without their authorisation, to bask in the glow of the most prestigious trophy in sailing.

In changing the name of the AC50 to the F-50, organisers of the new circuit would appear dodged some legal bullets from America's Cup authorities.

The existing events most likely to suffer are the two GC32 foiling catamaran circuits - the Extreme Sailing Series and GC32 World Tour.

Entered America's Cup teams are prohibited from taking part in an "ambush" America's Cup event.

A modification to the Protocol in June would seem to have had the unintended consequence of stopping any of the individuals with current America's Cup teams from competing in the F-50 series. The June modification to the definition of a Surrogate boat was changed from "any monohull yacht exceeding 12m overall" to "any yacht exceeding 12m LOA" - which includes multihulls.

Existing class yachts sailing in official regatta are excluded. Whether the F-50 is an "existing class yacht' remains to be seen.

An official announcement and launch of the F-50 series is expected in a few weeks.

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