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America's Cup Rialto: December 19 - Back to Basics for Challengers

by Richard Gladwell, 19 Dec 2020 03:53 PST 18 December 2020
Luna Rossa and INEOS teram UK - America's Cup World Series - Day 3 - Waitemata Harbour - December 19, 2020 - 36th Americas Cup presented by Prada © Richard Gladwell /

The three day America's Cup World Series is now complete. The first regatta that has been sailed in the new AC75 foiling monohull.

It has been a regatta of surprises.

Each of the three days has tested a different quality of the class and those who sail it.

Thursday, the first day of the regatta was all about speed.

Friday, the second day was all about rapid-fire match racing skills and strategy.

Saturday was all about flight control. Those who stayed aloft for the longest, prevailed over those who didn't.

The three days of the regatta were preceded by five days of practice - which told the pundits very little. Maybe the crews learned a little more, but if so it didn't show this week. The most remarkable Practice Session was when Emirates Team New Zealand trained alone. The intensity of the session was remarkable - along with few timeouts - the purpose of which seemed to be just long enough to get heart rates down briefly, before commencing the next bracket.

In the buildup to the America's Cup in Auckland, it was noticeable how often the Challengers avoided sailing on Course C (inner Waitemata), and Course B.

[Yes, we kept a daily log of who went out, when, were they went and when they returned - as part of a spy routine to reduce/control the time taken to capture the images that have been part of Sail-World's regular content since September 2019, when Emirates Team NZ launched their first boat. The logging and tracking task was made a lot easier through the use of several webcams dotted around the waterfront, and the British recon boat which left its AIS running all day, as it watched the other teams, until the Brits turned up in force.]

Most didn't even sail out of the Waitemata harbour, preferring to rig somewhere around Rangitoto Light, before heading out into the Hauraki Gulf on the old America's Cup courses used in the 2000 and 2003 Cups. Or they would often tow all the way down to Course E, "the Paddock" - down off Eastern Beach and used by Emirates Team New Zealand to work up for Bermuda in the 2017 campaign.

Or they would use the "speed track" a stretch of water running north/south along the western coast of Motuihe Island to the east of Auckland, which enabled a straight line reciprocal course to be sailed, and ideal for comparing two different wings for instance - with the benchmark wing on say the port foil arm, and the test wing on the starboard.

It was rare to see one of the Challengers put in a solid session on Course C, running from Rangitoto Island in the east into the Waitemata Harbour to the west and past North Head at the entrance to the inner harbour.

Most of the images we did get were taken on the occasion when they sailed through the stadium course area, not at race pace, on the way back to their base in the Viaduct.

Emirates Team New Zealand did sail training sessions in the two race areas, and even if there had been a speed testing session out at sea, would often stop off for half and hour to an hour and go through some routines. They would commonly do a run past our vantage point at North Head, go into the harbour the turn and come flying past on the way back out, into the bottom end of Course C - and repeating the process several times over. That exit from the inner harbour was an impressive sight and one not easily forgotten.

Had the other teams spent more time in those two course areas instead of using them as a transit zone, maybe they would not have struggled in quite the same way as they did today. Had they picked up more data, sailing at race pace in the area, they may have realised the softness of the breeze in the area and devised strategies to compensate or mitigate the difficulty in staying airborne.

For sure Emirates Team New Zealand struggled too, but add in Peter Burling's commensurate dinghy sailing skills, not forgetting that he and Blair Tuke won a 49er World Championship in the Course A, B and C areas in November 2019. Plus the same area is the training ground for Yachting New Zealand's high performance teams - four members of which are also on ETNZ's sailing team.

While the Challengers minds now turn to how their performances can be rescued with the delivery of new goodies from their design and development teams - maybe a back to basics approach could be the best course of action - and better learn nuances of racing on the stadium courses, instead of using them as a transit zone.

The Kiwis have the task of better understanding a boat, and working out wrinkles given that Te Rehutai was launched less than four weeks ago. But they have a lot more time before they defend the America's Cup in ten weeks.

Right now time is of the essence.

The issues of INEOS are plain to see expressed in the racing results - however all teams have much the same set of work-ons, it is just that the Brits have bigger potential for gain.

The rig is one obvious area - generation of more horsepower aloft translates into speed when the enormous righting moment of an AC75 is applied, compared to the catamarans used in 2013 and 2017.

That can come from tightening up the rig and getting that closer to the power generated from a hard wing, and also look at power loss. This is an area in which Emirates Team NZ seems to have an edge.

The Code Zero is sitting in the sailbag for most teams. However Emirates Team New Zealand has done more work in this area, including sailing to windward with the big, long footed sail - it is 5metres longer in the foot cross measurement. Certainly its power would have been welcome downwind yesterday, when the AC75's were at their most sticky.

The big issue for all team is that they need to get most of the grinding crew on deck to get a tight furl on the sail. There seems to be a common equipment issue. The furling technology is widely used in other classes - again it seems strange that in the big-budget, who are well resourced in terms of intellectual horsepower, that this item stays in the too hard basket. Plus once set up, it stays up for the entire race - and even foiled will impose excessive drag. But it is sail area, and it seems hard to believe that with all the resources available to the teams, and engineering problems that have been solved - that this one is beyond their reach. For the Challengers at least there seems to be a collective decision that the Code Zero is in the too hard category - but they risk the Defenders, with more time available, and being more innovative, coming up with a solution that make monkeys of the Challengers.

Foils and their wings are another work-on, but with all the talent that is available in the teams, how much more time is required? All teams have had two boats, which allows six pairs of wings across the boats and 40 flaps. Breaking that down it is probably 10 unique wing designs and then the final pair - and not counting how many hundreds more have been tested in the performance simulator. How many more do they need to get it right?

Then there is the breakdowns. Three of the teams have been in the water with their new AC75 for two months, and ETNZ less than one month. The Challengers have all had a week in the hangar to get the major bugs resolved, ETNZ too. But still the breakdowns occur at critical times. Watching the Challengers train - they may but in long hours but the downtime compared to ETNZ is significant. This is indicative of breakdowns occurring during training, and it may be that the Challengers have been too tolerant of these as a consequence of innovations being trialed in the search for speed.

While it has been accepted that a common mistake of losing teams in the America's Cup has been their decision to lock off development during the Cup, maybe now we are at the end of that philosophy, and that with the complexity of the AC75 - reliability is more of an issue.

Above decks the AC75's look deceptively simple - that is for aerodynamic reasons and reduced drag and completely masks the below decks system complexity, necessary to drive the foiling beasts.

Hydraulic meltdowns seem to be a common issue, and have more impact that the AC50 - given that the AC75 are no allowed the same accumulator relative capacity as the AC50. Drive is now more direct from the grinders, and no longer is sailing one of these foilers an exercise in pumping oil around the boat.

Outwardly the Challengers might appear to be up against a time boundary. But provided the British continue their stoic tradition of making an early exit from elimination stages of a Challenger Series, then they are really in no different a time situation than the Defender - but with an eye to not being the second to be eliminated.

Of course one factor that could yet come into play is a catastrophic boat failure - which given what we have seen over the past few days in terms of reliability, and the forces involved can't be ruled out. However all teams have their first boats in Auckland.

But that is not a selection or Cup winning route.

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