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Pushing the boundaries

by Mark Jardine 16 Mar 2021 13:15 PDT
America's Cup match day 6 - Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli and Emirates Team New Zealand battle it out in race 9 © ACE / Studio Borlenghi

When the AC75 boat concept was revealed back in November 2017, we all looked on it with a sense of incredulity. Would this gecko-like monohull actually fly? Would the sailors be able to control it? Would they be able to match race?

The 36th America's Cup has answered those questions with an emphatic 'Yes'! Looking back at the video which accompanied the announcement, we can see how reality differs from the concept: the traditional yacht deck layout has become twin pods on either side of the boat, the mainsail now hugs the deck along the entire foot and the Code Zero on the prodder is redundant. Yes, we saw a few trials of them in practice, but even during Monday's race 8, with the yachts wallowing off the foils, neither team chose to hoist theirs.

The learning curve has been incredibly steep and it's clear that the process continues throughout the America's Cup match itself. Recent examples revolve around the wind shadow these wing sails produce and what effect this has on the boat behind. We watched Emirates Team New Zealand fall off the foils after gybing behind Luna Rossa. It was an instinctive move which Peter Burling and Blair Tuke would have no doubt taken in their 49er, but the incredible speeds of the AC75 have changed the dynamics of what's happening with the wind.

The science and technology that goes into these boats is mind-bending, but so are some of the concepts we need to understand as spectators. In traditional sailing we're used to going downwind and being able to cover the boat in front.... It makes sense, right? We're travelling with the wind therefore the boat in front of you is blanketed from the wind. Not so in an AC75. When you're travelling at four times the wind speed, the boat in front of you is covering you downwind.

Then there are the wind shadows which you've left on the course and may interact with later as they travel slowly down the course. For example, when you round the windward mark and head downwind, you are likely to cross the patch of wind which you sailed upwind in at some point. This is all going to influence your sailing.

We've also seen in the pre-starts when the boats gybe, they often fall off the foils unexpectedly. Are they reaching through the dirty air from when they entered the start box? Or going through the wind from just before they gybed? I have no doubt that some very clever boffins with brains the size of planets are looking into all of this and working out how to produce visualisations for the sailors while out on the water. It's a brave new world!

The America's Cup racing itself has had its ups and downs. We've seen processional races won by a country mile, some where the start is all important and some absolute classics. Tuesday's single race fell firmly into the classic category with lead changes, superb match racing manoeuvres and exceptional sailing skill, all at 40 knots.

There are of course naysayers who yearn for the return of displacement boats, symmetrical spinnakers, peels and jib changes. Social media, as it is prone to do, descends into the love / hate battle of the foilers and the traditionalists. The argument is often accompanied by comments that the racing was always super-tight, the lead was constantly changing, and each race was an epic battle. The reality is that this was simply not the case. Yes, there have been races for the ages, but the majority were processional and pedestrian.

One concept that I have mixed feelings about in modern America's Cups are the boundaries. The so-called 'stadium sailing' does ensure that the two teams can't just sail off to the furthest corners of the beat and tack on the lay line, but in some circumstances they can reduce the options for overtaking. In the higher wind strengths, and when the wind is shifty, they work well, but in a constant 12 knots of wind if you didn't win the start, you didn't win the race.

I'm sure an immense amount is being learned from this America's Cup, by both teams and race management, and I hope the course area is something they take a look at. The Race Officer is the legendary Iain Murray who has done an excellent job of providing as fair racing as he possibly can, but I'd like to see him have a few more options up his sleeve, such as a diamond-shaped boundary on constant wind-strength courses to give the boat behind more options.

It is looking increasingly likely that the AC75 will be the yacht chosen for the 37th America's Cup and it's obvious that there's a long way to go in their development. The sailors love sailing them, the new generation of young sailors love them, and they are beginning to gain coverage in the mainstream media. I've been providing comments for BBC World's Sport Today programme and, talking with the show's producer, non-sailors are tuning in and taking a look at these incredible machines.

At the end of the day though sport is about the people and the personalities. No-one aspires to be a boat, but the likes of Peter Burling, Jimmy Spithill, Francesco Bruni and Ben Ainslie are the role-models our kids look up to. The America's Cup always has moments of bad blood, but there is genuine respect between the Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli crews. Another area which needs looking at is the post-race press conference as, while the sailors come out with superb quotes, some of the questions which are thrown at the sailors are dire.

There needs to be more of a buzz at these occasions and the presenter needs to be energetic. The tone is set with the opening comments and we need a personality who brings the best out of the sailors. We're lucky to have some great characters in sailing, but often they look like they're about to fall asleep during a press conference, not produce the quotes which can be used by the mainstream news channels around the world.

The on-water commentary is coming on all the time. Kenny Read has grown more and more into his role of anchor-man, with superb expert insight from Shirley Robertson, and Nathan Outteridge has been a revelation, with his delivery improving by the day. INEOS TEAM UK's David 'Freddie' Carr has always been good in front of the camera and was brilliant when up in the chopper to give his thoughts on the wind, sail configuration, manoeuvres and just about any other question which was thrown his way. If Freddie was talking to the sailors post-race I believe we'd have an occasion that everyone would tune in to.

The America's Cup is pushing the boundaries in many respects, but just as the learning curve with the AC75 is steep, so is how it is portrayed in the media. My views may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I recognise the aspirational status of the Auld Mug. Grassroots sailing may bear little resemblance to what we see on our screens, but if it inspires a kid to take up sailing, wanting to be the next Peter Burling, then that can only be a good thing.

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com Managing Editor

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