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America’s Cup Reflections

Vol. III, No. 52

Spithill and his team in action in a qualifying race. Photo by Allen Clark /

Spithill and his team in action in a qualifying race. Photo by Allen Clark /

First, of course, congratulations to Oracle Team USA for their successful Cup defense. Some say it was the most astounding comeback in sports history.

Second, congratulations to Emirates Team New Zealand for their impressive early run to match point and gracious sportsmanship. When you devote years of all-out effort to a quest of this magnitude, it must be crushing to see it slip away in the end. They are anyone’s worthy opponent and deserve as much respect as the victors.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the 34th America’s Cup competition was the use of multihulls with wing masts and the daring use of hydrofoils. Who, before this, would have imagined a 72-foot, 7-ton sailing vessel blasting along at up to 50 mph while balanced precariously on a single hydrofoil? The speeds these vessels attained and the technology they pioneered were both extreme and spectacular.

As a junior catamaran racer, I recall reading with fascination Bernard Smith’s 1963 book, the 40-knot sailboat. Smith addressed the speed barrier designers had wrestled with for millennia. The book’s centerpiece topic was the aero-hydrofoil, an innovative vessel which could finally break through the 40-knot barrier (40 knots = 46 mph). It was daring and outlandish at the time. But the present day America’s Cup boats have made 40-knots seem ordinary.

Generating the aerodynamic lift necessary for extreme speed is less of a problem for a designer than eliminating the resistance of hauling a hull through the water. For ages designers have toiled to find more streamlined shapes to reduce drag. They knew that every time a hull’s speed doubled, its resistance quadrupled. They also knew that the right bottom shape would allow a hull to climb out of the water (at sufficient speed) to plane, same as a water-skier. Planing, essentially skimming over the water, is much faster; but it requires relatively smooth water to work. Hydrofoils were the next step in getting free of hydrodynamic resistance. Hydrofoils are designed to lift a hull entirely clear of the water, eliminating most resistance.  The resulting increase in speed is dramatic. The term “foiling” was coined to describe riding entirely above the waves, balanced on hydrofoils. Perfecting them was a key challenge of this America’s Cup competition.

I spoke with a small sailboat manufacturer while the America’s Cup 19-race series was still in full swing. He said he was already getting calls from retail boat buyers looking for “foiling packages”. They wanted add-on hydrofoils to make their off-the-rack dinghies go crazy fast, like the Cup boats.

Larry Ellison, Emirates Team Oracle USA’s visionary and principle financial backer, spoke of taking even these new extremes to the next level in the 35th Cup defense. Historically the America’s Cup has been an international competition of not just sailing skill, but of yacht design. A fast boat certainly makes its crew look good. I imagine after a well-earned celebration, designers will begin dreaming up the next generation of Cup boats.

Mounting a credible run at the Cup these days costs a single team hundreds of millions of dollars. It is not something for us ordinary sailors. We can only watch in fascination. There is no word yet on when and where the next Cup defense will take place, but I would expect the spectacular. Fasten your seat belts. When billionaires throw a lot of money at something, innovation is inevitable.