In Depth

How new technology is changing the America’s Cup

Jimmy Spithill, of Oracle Team USA, explains how technology has turned modern boat racing into an experience akin to flying an aircraft

With their fixed, rigid wings instead of sails, the boats we race these days have as much in common with aeroplanes as they do with sailboats. When we hit about 15 knots, the hulls also rise up out of the water and the boat hydrofoils. Top speed is 40 to 50 knots, which is as much as three times the wind speed.

I have my pilot’s licence now and sailing one of these AC45 catamarans is very similar to flying. The boat is a lot like a plane because you have the forward wings and back elevators, but in terms of control it’s more like flying a helicopter, in that you have three things going on at once, so you’re always making adjustments. You’re just trying to balance and manage it and anticipate.

It takes a lot of concentration, because the boat is never stable; if you’re stable, you’re slow. But, as the speed increases, the boat becomes more unstable – and that’s why you’re constantly on the edge. It’s just like a racing car: the harder you push, the faster you go, but it’s pretty obvious when you go too far, as you just crash.

It costs about $500,000 to make one of the wings we use during the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series (the qualifying stages of the competition), and about double that for the one we will race in the America’s Cup. The boats we’re sailing now are only 1.8 tons, so the wing doesn’t weigh much and is quite fragile. It’s made of a carbon frame and a flexible plastic membrane and, if you capsize the boat, the membrane breaks and the water gets in and starts to damage it. So if you capsize, you have to get the boat upright again as soon as you can.

We crashed a 72ft boat during our training for the last America’s Cup and spent the whole night drifting out to sea from San Francisco Bay, as we weren’t able to right it because of the strong currents. The damage was pretty much total.

The interesting thing about this new technology is that once you move over to it, a lot of the sailing fundamentals remain the same, but we find that things are just happening a lot faster. It’s about anticipating what’s going to happen next. So when something changes, you don’t have time to discuss it; you’ve just got to be instantaneous. You have to make decisions while physically exhausted. Normally, when you make a mistake it’s because you’re worn out, stressed and under a lot of pressure. But when you can get to the point where you’re able to respond well in those circumstances, that’s when you have a chance of winning. 

It’s very different from the old days. If you look at the old monohulls we raced not too long ago, many of the guys were sitting around doing next to nothing. It makes you wonder about the definition of a sport. The roles on board were very specialised, but that’s all changed with these boats. The nature of the job has shrunk the talent pool down. It’s also brought the age down, and certain people that were good in the old boats just don’t cut it now; the physical requirements for these sail wings are so high. It takes such a collective effort – you’re not relying on the skipper only. You’re so undermanned and the guys are constantly multitasking.

That’s why the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series is so good, because we just get out racing under some regatta pressure and see how we stack up. The level of fitness required is pretty intense. The guys probably get to about maximum heart rate for 20–25 minutes (the length of the race), so it’s full on.

Of course, as the racing gets tougher, the risk increases. This is one of the only genuine extreme team sports, and you need everyone on board working together to succeed. Hesitation could be your biggest enemy.

If you’re not 100 per cent ready to go, or if you’ve got doubt, it’s not good. Things happen on the boat when you have only a split second to act. And that’s where you need a great team. It’s what this racing is all about.

Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series stages will take place throughout 2016. Visit americascup.com for more details. Oracle Team is sponsored by Bremont watches, which is also the overall timekeeper of the competition. The British firm has created a range of watches especially to celebrate its involvement, and the USA team wears the Bremont Oracle I watch during competition; bremont.com

Jimmy Spithill was born in Sydney and is a two-time winner of the America’s Cup. At the time of Oracle Team USA’s victory in 2010, he became the youngest skipper ever to win. He was 30.

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