Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sail On

The match races which will eventually determine the challenger for the 34th America's Cup sailing race (in 2013) are underway. The first round of the America's Cup World Series has taken place in Cascais, Portugal, and the teams are now preparing for the next round in Plymouth in the Southwest of England (beginning 9/10).

I wrote a bit about 18 months ago on the 33rd America's Cup challenge of 2010, which saw 150 years of sailing tradition turned on its ear with the shocking introduction of radically new and extremely advanced machinery to the world of international yacht racing. After the dust had settled, with BMW Oracle Racing's sweep of the series in the spectacular one-off USA 17, there was a sense that the series would return to more conventional machines, i.e. sloop-rigged monohulls. I felt a little twinge of disappointment.

(The 2010 champion USA-17, a 90' Tri-hull for BMW Oracle Racing.)

But there's no stopping the forward march of progress. Clearly, I was not the only one awed and thrilled by the technologies on display at the 33rd America's Cup, and the consignment of the multihulls to the scrapheap was premature. I think the speeds were just too addicting and the technology simply too mesmerizing to turn back.

(How to keep us down on the farm when we've seen this?)

And so race organizers have settled upon a 72 foot catamaran specification for the 34th America's Cup (slightly smaller and more tightly specified than the 90' multi-hull specification of the previous Cup). These boats do not yet exist except on paper. The America's Cup world Series match races currently underway are being run on scaled-down versions of the AC72, dubbed the AC45. These 45 foot carbon fiber wing sail catamarans are in themselves fabulous pieces of machinery. These early match races are used to winnow down the field and determine the final challenger, who will take on standing Cup holder BMW Oracle USA in 2013. It's in these final races we'll see the new AC72.

I love the concentration of so much human ingenuity on such a whimsical goal. Eight teams including the defender are involved in the challenge: BMW Oracle (USA--defender), Artemis Racing (Sweden), Emirates Team New Zealand (New Zealand), Aleph Equip de France (France), Energy Team (France), China Team (China), Team Korea (South Korea), and Green Comm (Spain). The design and manufacture of the yachts themselves is almost impossibly fascinating to me. All the design elements--hulls and sails and rigging and materials and tactics; everything is literally up-to-the-minute, and everyone is striving for the tiniest advantage, much like my beloved Formula One car racing. The crews of five or six guys per boat are jetting around the world, everyone approaching the business like a top-tier athletic endeavor. Watching everybody scurry around the boat as it rounds a mark, one understands the comparison. Imagine having this as your job! (Overheard in a bar: "Oh, I'm a grinder on an America's Cup yacht.")

(The high speeds also come with perils; the boats can be dangerous.)

There's something anachronistic about high-tech racing using only the power of the wind, but especially in these climate-conscious times that seems a boon (I'd love to see a similarly international effort given to electric car racing, and I think this is coming).

Racing organizers are also trying a new method of broadcasting things this year, putting everything on a really excellent website with hi-def videos on YouTube. I think this is beyond brilliant, and surely something that will become the norm for this type of activity. I can watch all the content on my schedule, plus lots of promotional material and in-depth features. I find myself sucked into these videos and hours pass.

If you have any interest in these things, take a quick look at the video channel. I defy you not to get sucked in! (But don't say I didn't warn you.)

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