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America's Cup Rialto: Four teams take their places on the starting grid in Auckland

by Richard Gladwell Sail-World NZ 14 Oct 2020 16:29 PDT 15 October 2020
Emirates Team New Zealand and American Magic - Stadium Course - Waitemata Harbour - September 21, 2020 © Richard Gladwell / Sail-World.com

For the first time in the 2021 America's Cup, the AC75 race-boats of the Challenger teams and the Defender are all in the same place, and the same phase of the regatta.

All teams are in Auckland and commissioning their second-generation AC75's which will be their race boats for the 2021 Prada and America's Cups. The first launch ceremonies will get underway early next week.

All Challengers are expected to launch race boats that are a step up from their first generation designs, but their real test will be how much speed improvement they can effect in the 14 week remaining until the start of the Prada Cup in mid-January.

After COVID-19 hit Europe, the teams all lost the opportunity to race using their first-generation AC75's in the two cancelled America's Cup World Series regattas last April (Cagliari) and June (Portsmouth). Now, the three day series in mid-December - combining both the Christmas Cup and third round of the ACWS takes on a new importance.

Normally, as Defender, Emirates Team New Zealand would enjoy a couple of months more design/build time than the Challengers - given their sole focus is on the 36th Match starting on March 6, 2021. That extra time would usually be used to allow the design/test/build process to run as late as possible.

But COVID-19 and the two ACWS cancellations changed all that, and the home team is now on the same timeline as the three Challengers.

The Challengers' focus is on the start of the Prada Cup, which starts eleven weeks earlier on January 17, 2021.

Emirates Team New Zealand will race their second AC75 in the December ACWS series - it will be their first and only look at the Challengers.

The Defender's development appears to have plateaued on their first AC75, Te Aihe, and a switch to their second boat is imminent.

Design Chief, Dan Bernasconi confirmed to Sail-World a couple of weeks ago, that their program is now back on schedule after the time lost in the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Pushing the limits

All teams expect to have a substantial step up in performance by their race-boats from the first generation AC75's. Quite how far level of improvement extends remains to be seen, but a top-end speed around the mid-fifties or more is to be expected.

Significant speed gains were made over the course of the 2013 and 2017 America's Cups, and the Kiwis will have their work cut out if that level of increase happens in the Prada Cup.

Over the past few weeks, Te Aihe appears to have been pushing the limits for an AC75 to check that the sailing loads, in extreme situations, are within designed safety limits. Sailing in strong winds, ETNZ has nosedived at 49.9kts.

On Saturday, they capsized for the second time, after sailing the boat under.

American Magic has also had some interesting experiences in Auckland, including sailing in 30-35kt winds that are well in excess of the wind limits prescribed for racing.

At the other end of the scale, ETNZ also spent some time in light conditions, testing their Code Zero. They appeared to be using it as a big jib (upwind and down) rather than as downwind sail to complement the regular #1 jib. The use of the sail set from the bowsprit on the AC75 is quite different from the way Code Zeroes were used on the AC72's in the 2013 America's Cup. The big flat-cut headsail, or screecher, looks to have given Te Aihe the grunt to get foiling in light winds - well below the 6.5kt minimum for racing. The use of the Code Zero in these light-wind foiling conditions should get an AC75 sailing at three times windspeed - and at a considerable advantage over a non-foiling competitor.

The Code Zero testing was also essential to check loads on the bobstay and bowsprit - to avoid a recurrence of the issues on Luna Rossa in January when their bobstay broke - taking a section of the AC75's bow with it.

The cross-over windstrength to go from the Code Zero to the #1 jib, will be known by ETNZ and the ubiquitous Challenger recon teams.

It is also interesting to see how quickly ETNZ gets onto the smaller jibs - a reflection maybe of the high apparent windspeeds generated by the AC75's sailing at three and four times windspeed.

Big decision for Kiwis

Emirates Team New Zealand are expected to launch their race boat around the same time as the three Challengers - within the next three or four weeks.

All teams are expected to train alone in their new race-boats, as Emirates Team New Zealand and American Magic have been doing for the past few months in their first-generation AC75's.

Not so straight forward is what happens after the Christmas Cup/America's Cup World Series ends on December 20.

When the Prada Cup gets under way, only the Challengers will be racing each other. As Defender, it is only at this point, the start of the Prada Cup on January 15, that the Team New Zealand are allowed to train against another boat - one of their own.

But what are the Defender's options?

Their white shrink-wrapped 12-metre test boat Te Kahu was spotted briefly outside the base a couple of weeks back - and clearly headed for storage. That would appear to eliminate the possibility of ETNZ racing the new AC75 against their test boat.

Te Kahu was designed as a half-sized boat that would fit the AC75 class rule at full size. It is fast (only ETNZ know its full capability), and requires only four crew to sail it.

That last point means that of the 16 strong sailing team that Emirates Team New Zealand is believed to have, then with 11 on the AC75 and four for Te Kahu, the test boat could be sailed from within the current sailing team.

The other option is to sail Te Aihe against the new AC75 in the traditional way of doing two-boat testing. It may be that electric winches can be fitted to Te Aihe, as Luna Rossa did to get around COVID-19 safe distancing requirements. Electric winches would replace six grinders, and maybe automated foil control could be added to make Te Aihe as competitive as possible.

However, for all that short-crewed theory, ETNZ still need a good helmsman and trimmers, from outside the core racing team - which is easier said than done. One possible helmsman alternate is Nathan Outteridge (AUS), now resident in Auckland, and former helmsman with Artemis Racing in the 2013 and 2017 America's Cup campaigns. Outteridge was a training partner for Peter Burling and Blair Tuke in their 49er campaign in 2012 Olympics, where the Australians won the gold medal and the Kiwis the silver.

If Outteridge is not on the Kiwi payroll, then ETNZ need someone of his ilk to push Peter Burling and friends on the practice racecourse. In the AC75-world, good help is tough to find.

Emirates Team New Zealand has a reputation as being a very lateral thinking team. Over the past 35 years, they have often come up with an outlier solution, that proves to be a masterstroke.

That tradition started with the development of the first fibreglass 12 metre, back in 1987, and continued through to 2017, with their light air foils, a very clever approach to their test boat, and development of a shore-based simulator for design testing and crew practice. In between they came up with the first foiling AC72, the Millenium rig in the IACC class and resulted in three Cup wins.

There was one unsuccessful Defence, almost 20 years ago - when the design team had a brain explosion, with the unfortunate hula and several other "innovations" - which were their downfall, but the hard lessons were learned.

While ETNZ doesn't look to have any obvious pathway between the AC World Series regatta in mid-December, and the start of the Cup 11 weeks later - expect a surprise move, as well as a race boat that will be a big step up from Te Aihe.

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