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Selden 2020 - LEADERBOARD

Gladwell's Line: America's Cup racing gets underway at last

by Richard Gladwell, 7 Dec 2020 05:08 PST 7 December 2020
Te Rehutai, Emirates Team New Zealand - December 2020 - Waitemata Harbour - America's Cup 36 © Richard Gladwell /

It seems hard to believe that America's Cup racing of some form or another will get under way tomorrow. It's been 15 months since the first AC75 was launched, and only now are they having their first race.

Five days of official practice and informal racing are expected to be sailed ahead of the America's Cup World Series and Xmas Cup.

Hopefully, that will bring to the end of my and fellow Cup-Tragics' ritual dating back to September 2019, of chasing AC75's, test boats and later the arrival and testing of the Challengers.

Our daily obsession usually starts at around 0830hrs seven days a week with a look at the Viaduct webcam to see which teams have gone out early. For me it finishes in the early hours of the next day when the story of the day has been written, the images processed and the study shots worked through.

The early appointment with the webcam, will be switched for one with Predictwind.

I'll miss my favorite shooting possie hacked out of the volcanic cliff at the lower level of North Head. It used to be part of a wharf/landing and is just high enough to avoid having waves break over my feet and cameras. For those who will be watching Cup from ashore - make sure you get a few metres above water level - that way you can look down into the boats, and get a much better perspective.

For the Stadium courses, you are much better watching from ashore than on a boat - you'll have a much better position on the course, and with the advantage of a little height - plus the AC75's sail very close to shore.

It's like having a stadium seat right on the halfway line at a Rugby test.

I'm looking forward to the routine of an America's Cup regatta - knowing where and when the boats are going to be sailing - and being able to get on the water and get some shots of the boats coming toward the photographers, rather than trying to avoid them - or having chase boats moving in to block the shot.

For photographer/journalists, AC and Olympic Regattas are still hard work - generally, there's 10 hours work ahead once you step onto the dock at the end of racing - that's sometime after 2.30 am for the America's Cup in Auckland. But it is a routine - and for that, I'm thankful.

This will be my 11th America's Cup - covered either for a monthly magazine from 1987 or since 2007 for Sail-World. Some have been covered remotely (the way most international media will be covering the upcoming Cup New Zealand). Or from on the water - which has been my privilege going back to 2010 - and the start of the high performance/high-speed/apparent wind sailing era of the America's Cup.

Surprisingly, every one of those days has been different in each of those America's Cups. You get up in the morning knowing that by the time you get to bed, you have no idea about what is going to unfold, and how you are going to cover it. That's the fascination of the Cup.

It's a hackneyed phrase - but in the Cup you do have to expect the unexpected - and the best way to cover that is to be in a media/photo-boat, able to move around the course - and with a sideline seat to view the action. If you can't be on a mediaboat - then the next beat spot is ashore, with a device that will pick up the live feed (which is in latency/delay) and a radio that is picking up the live, real-time commentary from NewstalkZB. This Cup should be a great viewing experience for all, and the best yet.

It is hard to know what to expect. We have a class which has never raced boat on boat.

We don't know how seriously the teams will take the practice racing. It is expected to include two days of free-sailing in which the training in a "coordinated manner" rule is suspended. That will be followed by and the expected three days of organised practice racing with proper starts and umpiring systems in place. Given the vagaries of the Auckland weather, it is hard to see this series running to its full schedule, given the low upper wind limit of 21kts and 6.5kt minimum wind speed.

The AC75 Class Rule has already proven to be a good one. The first four boats built to it were still in racing condition when they were retired, despite never sailing a race.

Hark back to 2012/13, and the first four boats built to the AC72 Class Rule. Two suffered catastrophic accidents, and there was one death. The AC75's have suffered several capsizes, high-speed nose dives, and multiple sky-leaps - when the 7500kg boat jumps completely clear of the water after the rudder wing ventilates usually exiting a high speed gybe.

The most spectacular incident of all was the sky-leap and nose-dive by American Magic's second AC75, Patriot - which must have ticked many boxes on their structural test list. In all instances the AC75's could have sailed in the next race of the day.

The key point is that the AC75's are a tough, robust class and a credit to those who developed the class rule, and to the team designers who have specified the very different boats that have evolved.

So far eight AC75's have been built, six of those are all quite different design concepts - which is to be expected from a restricted class rule. The only two that look closely related are the two from Luna Rossa. Obviously some designs may be quicker that others. But my expectation is that the event will be won by the sailors negotiating tricky harbour courses, where an inherent speed advantage can quickly be erased by picking the right windshift. Or, more importantly getting in stronger pressure and be sailing at 4-8kts faster than your opponent - remembering that the AC75's sail at two, three of four times true windspeed. That's a lot bigger speed advantage than you'll ever get out of a design computer or simulator.

COVID-19 has forced many commentators to try and evaluate the various AC75 hull shapes from video, or still images. This is quite a misleading approach. The AC75 hulls are very subtle but complex three dimensional hull shapes, which can't be appreciated in two-dimensional video or still images which flatten off the hull subtleties.

The only way to evaluate a hull is by by walking around and underneath it and then forming a 3-D view in your mind. I've only seen two and a half of the Version 2 AC75 hulls, by physically walking around them. (We could only see half of Luna Rossa at the launch as it was roped off). For all their computational genesis, the AC75's are definitely works of the art of yacht design. Additionally the complex curves of the polished hulls reflect the light in some very deceiving ways, and what looks like a flared bow from one angle seems like a flat surface from another. Sorry, but video and still images don't do these designs justice.

Hopefully, the Practice Racing will also give some insights into the broadcast systems to be used in the Prada and America's Cups. While Kiwis are well catered with free to air coverage via TVNZ, those in other territories are holding their breath given the broadcast arrangements for the previous America's Cup. The ACWS itself will be broadcast live in New Zealand on free to air TV.

The key to global coverage is to repeat what was done in 2013 with the racing being carried live and free via Youtube. That will happen again in the 2021 events - in addition to the territorial broadcast coverage, some of which has been announced, but there is more to come.

Working the time zones for TV coverage is always tricky, but the scheduled 4.00 pm start for racing in New Zealand seems to work relatively well around the world - except for some parts of Europe and UK - where the choice is to stay up very late or get up early, or record and view later.

Of course, the Youtube coverage can be watched at any time - and if viewers can block out hearing the result ahead of time - then they too can view it "live".

In the wider context, the sailing and non-sailing world can look forward to a spectacular free to air sailing contest between the most radical boats in the sport. The fact that they sail at up to four times the speed of the wind is an amazing testament to the power of Nature.

From what we've seen over the past few months, and particularly with the launch of the Version 2 AC75's it is hard to see a standout. While many wish for a 12-team entry, when there has been that size fleet in the past, it still boils down to what we have today. Three seriously good challengers and the peloton.

Probably the most surprising aspect is the difference in wing shape. All teams have at least one PhD in hydrodynamics, or similar, in their midst. The teams have each built two AC75's. They are allowed six wings per AC75 - which can be anything from three pairs to five unique wings and with the sixth a pair of the best one.

We'll get an idea tomorrow which shape the teams believe is the best, and it will be interesting to see if there is some commonality of thought between the design boffins, or if we see four quite different approaches.

The other aspect is the rigs, and mainsail in particular. The key is to develop maximum horsepower above and get the boat foiling as quickly as possible in winds at the lighter end of the scale. In the higher wind range we have seen some try what appear to be smaller width mainsails - to drop some power and get control. Whether these sails get used in anger will be interesting. There has also a lot of swapping of jibs during practice, with the class rule specifying one set of maximum cross measurements for sail with a luff length of greater than 18metres and another set for sails 18 metres or less on the luff. This is another area where there doesn't seem to be a collectively agreed best solution.

What to do with the Code Zero is a question where the Class of 2021 still have a lot of homework to do. It has not proven to be possible to furl the AC75 Code Zeroes with quite same ease as it was done on the AC72's. With the current America's Cup Class - once the Code Zero is up, it stays for the race. That means sailing upwind with it and tacking with the big headsail, and its attendant drag - when it is not productive. Crossover point seems to be around 9kts - similar to an AC72. Most challengers seem comfortable to rely on their full hoist jibs. Emirates Team New Zealand are trying the hardest to make the Code Zero work. But set it or not, a Code Zero, the bowsprit and a jib must be carried aboard.

From what we have seen to date, it is clear that most teams are running out of time - even Emirates Team New Zealand sailed on Sunday - very unusual for the sailing team, and according to our records, it is the first time they have done so.

Tomorrow will be a fascinating day.

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