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North Sails Performance 2023 - LEADERBOARD

America's Cup: Alinghi Red Bull Racing caught in a weather bomb - what happened.

by Magnus Wheatley, America's Cup Media 3 Sep 2022 03:13 PDT 3 September 2022
Boat Zero got knocked flat by the weather bomb - Alinghi Red Bull Racing - Barcelona- August 2022 © Alinghi Red. Bull Racing

A corrugated storage facility at the western end of Barcelona's bustling port, amidst a dusty boatyard has been the unforgiving place for Alinghi Red Bull Racing to start their America's Cup campaign in this, their temporary base.

The August heat has been relentless, and the shed is exposed from dawn to dusk to the Catalonian sun with dry, arid temperatures outside reaching 33 degrees. Inside it's warmer still and working inside a carbon shell is not for the faint-hearted. But for the new kids on the block in this America's Cup cycle, despite fame borne out of two previous winning campaigns and experience everywhere in the team mixing with fresh, young, determined Swiss sailors, the programme to get sailing is intense and highly technical. It has perhaps been a steeper learning curve than even the wise heads of the team could imagine.

At one end of the sailing scale is a simple dinghy that can be rigged in a matter of minutes and be out on the water moments later. Right at the other end of the scale is an AC75. It's a technical monster of a boat that requires an army of specialists, technicians, engineers, and programmers just to get sailing. It's akin to Formula 1 on the water and the team required to get the boat sailing is immense. But even the best prepared get caught out and it's a known fact that AC75's bite as we saw so spectacularly in Auckland. Here in Barcelona, it has been the Swiss team's turn to experience a capsize.

The Swiss, it has to be said, are more than alive to the technicalities and the programme to date, has been impressive in its restraint. The natural urge from the sailors to get on the water is high as Bryan Mettraux, part of the 'driving group' for Alinghi Red Bull Racing offered: "We are sailors. We want to be sailing." The process of achieving that is all down to milestones being reached and data being thoroughly analysed. But mother nature is a cruel mistress as recent events have underlined.

August 2022 has been notable for both wind and swell all along the Barcelona waterfront. More often than not, it has been a building breeze that sees the morning skyline dominated by zephyrs but almost bang on cue at around 11am it starts to come in at pace. You know it's happening as the wing-boarders start trying to foil and the more experienced windsurfers start rigging up on the beach. Down the coast, you see lines of dinghies emerging from the various man-made breakwater ports for a day of race practice. Meanwhile in the sanctity of the America's Cup port, there's frenetic activity as cranes whirr into action to get the RIBs launched before the AC75 hits the crystal, sheltered waters of the port basin.

Alinghi Red Bull Racing's BoatZero splashed in earnest after its launch in mid-August and underwent what can only be described as tentative, rig-less tow-testing in breeze-less calm swells that averaged a metre to begin with, built to 1.5 metres and topped out at 2 metres as the day progressed. That's the 'Barcelona swell' that everyone will be getting accustomed to ahead of AC37 in September and October 2024 and it's not to be underestimated. By getting sailing early, the Swiss could arguably be ahead of the game on the weather front and what to expect. On some days it's a long, lolloping affair that whips up close to shore and crashes onto the rocks guarding the port, on others it's a short sharp swell that stretches far out to sea with little to no respite until early evening.

With the boat fitted out with cameras and sensors peeking out of the hull ports that are dotted all over the hull like a Swiss cheese to capture myriad points of data, the team undertook their initial series of high-speed lifts and drops on the foils behind their powerful RIB and shorn of the mast and rigging. This was tow-testing at its base level and something that all teams in the America's Cup are more than familiar with. It's wet work at times as the boat broncos upon instruction to a flick of the trim tabs, controlled in part by the skipper but more often by the designated 'flight controller.' On splashdown at pace, cooling Mediterranean waves fire-hose down the decks as the crews accept their dunking with good grace dressed in wetsuits and safety helmets.

BoatZero, we must remember, was Emirates Team New Zealand's original boat from the 36th America's Cup but to look at it, having undergone a thorough make-over by the superb shore-crew at Alinghi Red Bull Racing, it looks like a new boat.

However, the boats that will actually race in the 37th America's Cup will be considerably different in terms of straight design with longer wings, a lighter construction to aid flying at the lower end of the wind range and far more refinement all around, particularly in terms of systems controls and electronics than we see on this very first generation of AC75. Some of the other teams have opted not to re-sail their boats from Auckland - indeed INEOS Britannia have donated their Challenger finalist vessel to the Classic Boat Museum in Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

But for Alinghi Red Bull Racing who didn't compete in Auckland, the lessons they are learning now are invaluable to the future and form a baseline of performance as well as uniting the whole team both shoreside and on the water in processes and procedures that are necessary to get sailing and build a successful America's Cup campaign.

From a design perspective, the tramlines within the Protocol that governs the America's Cup limit what the Swiss can do with BoatZero. In essence it has to sail in an almost 'as original' state as it appeared in Auckland. However, the most notable and striking features to the naked eye are the different foils that Alinghi Red Bull Racing are running on both the port and starboard side. As confirmed by Nils Frei, the Head Coach of the team, the Swiss are using an anhedral foil (foils shaped downwards) on the port side that was purchased from the American Magic Team whilst the starboard foil is a flatter design, favoured by Emirates Team New Zealand and part of the package that came with the boat when they purchased it from the Kiwis.

The rudder is what's known as an 'inverted gull-wing' and came as standard from the Kiwi package and there have been no discernible changes to the hull form from the original 'Te Aihe' design as per the Protocol. The bowsprit, originally intended in AC36 to carry large reaching sails in very light winds but deemed useless as the boats sail so fast that the apparent wind shifts forward, is now a camera station measuring ride-height as well as housing the obligatory wind vane and deck-level weather instrumentation. For the new boats, there will be no bowsprit.

Inside the dual cockpits, you can see the grinding pedestals and winches - both of which will be done away with in the next generation boats in favour of cyclors and tackle systems along with running backstays - but where the big learning for the Swiss will be, is in the systems integration that they are plugging into BoatZero. Camera screens with highly bespoke software dot around the helmsman's steering position offering vital flight information and sail trim data as well as more traditional data such as speed, heading, course and race data. To witness the launch of an AC75 is to see it descended upon by programmers after the boat splashes, checking through the electronics. Immediately four or five shore crew are plugged into the boat's mainframe whilst crew disappear below to perform checks on the foil cant system and run through all of the electronics that the boat deploys to both sail and capture data.

After a brief (and planned) one week's holiday for the team at the end of August, mainly to allow for team members to complete their packing as they are moving en masse to Barcelona full-time from now, the Alinghi Red Bull Racing Team came back with the full intention of getting sailing and being the first AC75 flying along the Barcelona shoreline. Another couple of days of tow-testing ensued, this time with the rig up putting huge emphasis on foil control and the Cup world waited with bated breath to see the first raise of the double-skin mainsail. Again, the tow-testing was tentative in benign conditions with long swells amidst minimal surface breeze but the intensity had increased notably. With the rig in place, the pitching was amplified at relatively low speeds but by the evening of August 30th, notification was received that the first test sail was imminent.

Wednesday 31st August dawned, and the afternoon conditions were deemed light but good enough to hoist the sails and go displacement sailing for the first time. It's always a risk in the late afternoon in Barcelona as the heat of the day can give way quickly to changing conditions but the team splashed at 1.20pm and were ready to leave the port at 15.10.

Once out into open waters, the double-skin mainsail was raised and pressed together but with a RIB alongside it was another two hours of adjustments and tuning before finally Alinghi Red Bull Racing could get sailing, albeit only in displacement mode, and the sailors could feel the boat for the first time. It was a desperately short sailing session - clocked at 15 minutes - with just two tacks as the clouds started to roll-in and the imminence of a serious rain squall was evident.

The RIB came alongside on the port side and with the mainsail lowered and still stowed on deck (a mainsail needs a crane to get it on and off an AC75), the slow (5knot) tow back to port began as the weather deteriorated rapidly with a switched offshore wind coming over the Barcelona City rising from the onshore 4-5knots of the day to a thundering squall of 35 knots plus. Temperatures dropped from 28 degrees to 25 and hailstones described as 'the size of oranges' started falling from the sky. This began developing into a serious situation and very quickly the towing arrangements became unsustainable as BoatZero 'bounced' heavily in the combination of wind and swell, lifting the connected RIB fixed amidships by the port foil and heeling aggressively to leeward.

The recon team on the water recorded damage to the port foil (most probably internally and caused by the RIB attached above) and pressure dents at the hull/deck join at the port aft quarter before the chase boat was released and a tow line set up from the mast base.

Unfortunately, and before the RIB could continue to tow from the bow, the first capsize ensued and BoatZero's mast rested on the surface throwing a couple of crew members into the water who were quickly recovered by the second chase boat. Multiple attempts were made to right the boat quickly amidst the heavy rain and squall with the remaining crew contained in the cockpits and resulted in the boat righting and then immediately being blow over again before the squall passed and she came upright for a final time.

The recon team observed that on the tow-in, BoatZero looked like it had taken on water owing to the fact that she was slightly submerged on the port side as she was towed ashore and there will be a thorough estimation now undertaken by the team to ascertain any damage to the electronics and mechatronics systems. The boat was docked in at 20.00 hours and craned out half an hour later - a 'tough day the office' as Alinghi Red Bull Racing later described it.

It is, however, a common sight in Barcelona in the late summer to see violent, short storm squalls such as this building up that can produce flash floods and horrendous conditions on the water. They come quickly either up from the Mediterranean or down from the hills and mountain ranges dotted around the outskirts of the city itself, which almost sits in a bowl, and are prevalent in late August and very early September before more consistency builds into the weather pattern. This was a violent offshore storm and a chastening moment for the superb team on Alinghi Red Bull Racing.

In essence the purpose of BoatZero is to start working as a team, as well as getting to actually sail an AC75 purposefully and provide a base-line of data. It's a vital step on a very steep learning curve and with the introduction of Dean Barker from New Zealand and Pietro Sibello from Italy in their official capacity as 'ARBR Sailing Team Advisors', their vast Cup experience will be invaluable in getting Alinghi Red Bull Racing up and flying again in short order. It's very early days in this particular Cup campaign and way too early for any conclusions to be drawn other than the scale of the task they are undertaking to attempt to win the America's Cup.

The bull will be back for sure...


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