THIS BOAT CAN FLY
T3 takes an inside look at the Formula One-level tech that propelled one of this year’s America’s Cup contenders to fly over boiling sea water
The America’s Cup was started in 1851 by Great Britain, making it the oldest trophy in international sport. Great Britain’s team BAR – run by a former McLaren F1 boss and skippered by Olympic gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslie – teamed up with Land Rover to create a cup boat that has more in common with the pinnacle of motorsport than you’d expect from a sea-going vessel. It’s so fast it can fly, thanks to hydrofoils, and has so much aerodynamic power it can boil the water where it cuts through the sea. T3 visited the team before it competed, and we got some details on just how humans can take to the air using wind power alone ahead of the competition in Bermuda at the 35th America’s Cup.
HOW DOES THE CUP WORK?
One of the main reasons the America’s Cup is often called the Formula One of the seas is because of how heavily it relies on the design and engineering advances of the teams to create the fastest boat.
The event is held once every four years, and only the final race features the personalised boats built by each team. Up until that point a collection of races, dubbed The America’s Cup World Series, is held around the world on identical AC45F boats to which the teams are only allowed to make minor adjustments. These races let the teams collect points which help them earn a head-start in the final event, where there is only one winner.
Since the boats are powered by the wind alone, it’s down to their crews of skilled sailors to work in perfect synergy with the craft to let them skip along the water at speeds of up to 96km/h.
The teams that competed this year were Great Britain as BAR, America as Oracle, France as Groupama, Sweden as Artemis, New Zealand as Emirates, and Japan as SoftBank. Before the competition started, team BAR was leading on points collected from winning races in the World Series, meaning it took bonus points forward into the America’s Cup Qualifiers. That also meant it started out with a lead in the final race. This year’s competition was being defended by the United States, who were gunning for three consecutive wins.
However, on 26 June, Team New Zealand bested the defenders in the final to win the cup – but only after pitching their boat nose-first into the drink during a frantic start against Team BAR in a semi-final. Ainslie’s crew finished the competition third overall.
THE R ACE BOATS
The America’s Cup race boats are called ACC, for America’s Cup Class. These are all 15 metres in length and each fit into the same basic design rule – looking badass isn’t written in there, but they all definitely fit the bill. These ACC water-fliers have a lot of advances over the comparatively basic AC45F boats used in the World Series build-up races.
The final ACC boat is still wind- and human-powered alone, with no engine power at all. Instead, these boats use actuators. So, in the more basic World Series AC45F boats, sailors run about the twin-hull catamaran adjusting ropes and winding them in and out manually. On the ACC boats, however, the sailors can sit inside the hull and work at what are called grinder stations – think cycling but with your hands. These accumulate hydraulic power in the actuators at around 1,200 watts, which can then be spent on moving the ropes at the touch of a button when needed. The result is not only more efficient controls for faster manoeuvres, but also better aerodynamics with everyone mostly tucked inside the boat.
The boat cutting through the air with maximum aerodynamic efficiency is one of the most important ways to gain speed and the main reason the America’s Cup is as much a test of skill as its is of design prowess. That’s why Sir Ben
Ainslie’s team, BAR, teamed up with Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) to benefit from the car company’s years of aerodynamic experience. Headed by former McLaren Formula One team boss Martin Whitmarsh, team BAR is on the bleeding edge of wind-powered racing. We weren’t allowed to write about all of the boat’s details in case other teams stole them. This wasn’t out of paranoia: opponents send spy boats with telephoto lenses to the waters outside the team’s design centre, trying to catch a glimpse of what’s being built.
JLR developed industry-first aerodynamic testing that has enhanced the wingsail design. Bear in mind this sail is the size of a Boeing 747 passenger plane wing at 23.5 metres – so keeping
it aerodynamically efficient is massively important. When that mighty wing is taking the wind and using it, the boat can move at up to three times the speed of the wind hitting it. This is what helps the boat lift out of the water to hydrofoil – that and the advanced ‘daggerboard’ design. This was influenced by the lightweight car manufacturing world, and uses carbon fibre to offer a light build that’s strong enough to support the boat’s entire 2,400kg of weight – which is more than a Land Rover Discovery – on a single board. This is so fast and under so much pressure it’s claimed that the sea water actually boils as it passes over the edges at high speed.
Data is also a big part of the boat, with a whopping 16GB of information collected from the boat’s 190 sensors after every sailing session. Even the crew of six sailors are wired up with heart-rate monitors, which feed back into a dedicated strength and conditioning software platform. This can then determine the sailor’s training stress score, recovery time, how much time they have spent in different heart-rate zones, what output they can achieve when pushing, recovery times, calories consumed, distance covered, power produced and plenty of other variables.
When it comes to sailing, the efficiency of the boat’s path in relation to the wind is massively important. The most direct line between marker points isn’t always the best, as a longer distance might catch stronger winds and actually end up being faster. To help make these key tactical decisions, the BAR boat is equipped with an E Ink low-power display that works in all conditions. Thanks to being E Ink, it’s clear in all lights, without the polarisation issues of LCD. It’s also flexible, so can be mounted to the aerodynamic surfaces of the boat.
This tactical screen displays the boat’s position on the race course relative to the marks and boundaries. It also offers predictive information on time, distance and sailing angles required to the boundaries, as well as the number of manoeuvres required to complete any given leg of the course. It even provides information on how the boat’s performance compares to computer models and the best past performances in similar conditions. All that should help make the skipper’s decisions about what path to take a better informed one.
BAR team leader Sir Ben Ainslie said: “We had to build not just the boat but the design and engineering team, the facilities and the processes to get to this point today.”
Despite bowing out of the competition early, the message from Sir Ben Ainslie was clear when asked about the team’s intention for the next America’s Cup: “We will be back next time and we will be stronger.”
The sailors are put through a training regime that builds muscle while also increasing their bodies’ aerobic efficiency