The last Amer­ica’s Cup was fas­ci­nat­ing in large part be­cause of how far it went off script. Hy­dro­foil­ing Cup boats—the big­gest tech­no­log­i­cal game-changer of that cy­cle—were sup­posed to have been made im­pos­si­ble by the rule­mak­ers. Artemis crew­man An­drew “Bart” Simp­son” trag­i­cally died when his team’s first AC72 cap­sized and folded in two dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion. And then, of course, there was “the come­back,” with Or­a­cle Team USA peak­ing in its de­vel­op­ment cy­cle just in time to re­bound from an 8-1 deficit against Emi­rates Team New Zealand to cap­ture a win for the record books.

Four years later, the term “foil­ing” is firmly lodged into the sail­ing lex­i­con, with classes and pro­fes­sional series tak­ing to the air around the world. Be­yond that, after pro­gres­sively shrink­ing the de­sign en­ve­lope the lat­est gen­er­a­tion of Amer­ica’s Cup Class (ACC) boats to 50ft, and with mul­ti­ple sea­sons of racing and train­ing aboard the now-foil­ing AC45s, this year’s Cup racing will likely be sur­pris­ingly sim­i­lar to the last few races in the 2013 fi­nals.

So what’s dif­fer­ent this time around? Ev­ery­thing. It’s just a bit harder to see.

For 2017, both the teams and bud­gets are smaller in the in­ter­est of keep­ing costs under con­trol. (Or­a­cle Team USA has pegged the ba­sic costs of its ACC at $3 mil­lion, in terms of ma­te­ri­als and man-hours.) The pow­er­ful wings are also built under strict pa­ram­e­ters, while the hulls and beams con­nect­ing them look nearly iden­ti­cal across the six teams. So it’s es­sen­tially only in the foil de­signs and trim­ming mech­a­nisms that the boats di­verge.

None­the­less, the re­sult­ing web of con­trol sys­tems and power gen­er­a­tion—not to men­tion the foils them­selves—has proved to be fer­tile ground for in­no­va­tion as the teams strive for a way to make the most of a sin­gu­lar com­po­nent com­mon to all six cam­paigns: the hu­man crew. In­deed, if foil­ing was the catch phrase of the 34th Amer­ica’s Cup, the de­vel­op­ment of “hy­draulic ac­cu­mu­la­tors,” or the de­vices used to reg­u­late the hy­draulic power gen­er­ated by each boat’s six sailors, has be­come the defin­ing tech­nol­ogy of to­day’s Cup cy­cle.

Hu­man-gen­er­ated hy­draulic power is cru­cial to sail­ing an ACC, where it is used for ev­ery­thing from trim­ming the wing and soft jib to chang­ing the an­gles of the rud­ders and dag­ger­boards, to lift­ing them clear of the wa­ter. Equally crui­cial, there is a lim­ited al­lowance for the scale of the pres­sur­ized hy­draulic sys­tems used to power the var­i­ous rams and winches on each ACC—which in turn, puts a pre­mium on the ef­fi­ciency of the com­plex ma­chin­ery used to store and dis­trib­ute the en­ergy cre­ated by the crews at their grind­ing han­dles. Bot­tom line: no mat­ter how hard they train, the four grinders (the helms­men and wing trim­mers are com­mit­ted to sail­ing the boat) sim­ply can­not gen­er­ate enough en­ergy for the power needs of cer­tain ma­neu­vers. There­fore, wisely hus­band­ing that en­ergy has be­come a crit­i­cal part of not just strat­egy, but also de­sign.

Which is not to say the crews aren’t do­ing their level best to close the gap. Just the op­po­site. Ever since the 50ft ACC de­sign was of­fi­cially voted in by Amer­ica’s Cup Race Management in 2015, the teams have been fo­cus­ing on their train­ing, put­ting in count­less hour in the gym. They have also brought in crew and spe­cial­ists from other en­durance sports, like row­ing and ca­noe racing, all in search of a fit­ness edge.

“When we brought in Ky Hurst, the Olympic dis­tance swim­mer, we re­al­ized quickly how se­ri­ously he takes train­ing,” says Joey New­ton, a four-time Cup crew racing with Or­a­cle Team USA. “This was a whole world dif­fer­ent than what we did be­fore. Sail­ing has lagged be­hind other car­dio-based sports.”

“We are in­tro­duc­ing deep phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes in mus­cles,” says Peter Cun­ning­ham, Team Artemis Racing’s sports sci­ence man­ager and a veteran trainer with the Bri­tish Olympic team. “We have run­ners and row­ers try out, but they don’t have any­thing yet be­cause mus­cles need time to adapt. Our sailors are at a halfmil­lion han­dle rev­o­lu­tions a month.”

In­ter­est­ingly, while five of the six teams are re­ly­ing on tra­di­tional up­per-body grind­ing sys­tems, Emi­rates Team New Zealand has con­tin­ued its long tra­di­tion of think­ing out­side the box (never for­get it was the Ki­wis who forced the rest of the com­pe­ti­tion to adopt full-foil­ing dur­ing the last Cup by fig­ur­ing a way around the im­ped­i­ments put in place by the rules­mak­ers) by us­ing grinders that look like ex­er­cise bikes—thereby cap­tur­ing of the po­ten­tial of the body’s much larger leg mus­cles. Ad­mit­tedly, the Kiwi “cy­clists” are slightly more ex­posed under sail and may take longer to get on and off their pedestals dur­ing ma­neu­vers. But on the face of it, the move seems to make a lot of sense. Whether it’s a win­ner, only time will tell.


Be­yond the ba­sic physics of mak­ing an ACC boat work, an­other big dif­fer­ence is that the AC35 race­course on Ber­muda’s Great Sound will look like a short track speed skat­ing oval com­pared to the drawn-out, three-mile con­tests that were held on San Fran­cisco Bay.

For ex­am­ple, whereas there was only one up­wind leg on the AC34 course, there are now two, roughly dou­bling the num­ber of laps. In ad­di­tion, the races will be much shorter, about 20 min­utes each—a for­mat ar­rived at through ex­ten­sive test­ing aboard the six teams’ turbo-charged AC45s test plat­forms.

Of course, more laps also means more ma­neu­vers, which has led to an­other big de­vel­op­ment since San Fran­cisco: the evo­lu­tion of not just up­wind foil­ing, which was just barely achieved by the win­ning Or­a­cle Team USA squad in 2013, but foil­ing tacks, so that “dry laps,” in which a boat’s hulls never once touch the wa­ter, are now pos­si­ble. In fact, Or­a­cle Team USA and Team Softbank Ja­pan were the first teams to com­plete foil­ing tacks—a ma­neu­ver that rep­re­sents a kind of nexus of the var­i­ous tech­no­log­i­cal and phys­i­o­log­i­cal as­pects of AC35 racing—and the per­for­mance dif­fer­ence on a given wind­ward leg can mean the gain or loss of hun­dreds of yards. At press time no team had con­sis­tently mas­tered the ma­neu­ver in all con­di­tions. But it was gen­er­ally agreed that if any team ever did man­age to gain a dis­tinct ad­van­tage in this area, it could be a de­cid­ing fac­tor through the series.

Speak­ing of ad­van­tages, the World Series, though raced in the smaller AC45 class, pro­vided bonus points for the chal­lengers as well as for the De­fender, which for the first time in Cup his­tory will be al­lowed to com­pete against the chal­lengers dur­ing at least a por­tion of their qual­i­fy­ing series. Land Rover BAR won the over­all World Series ti­tle and there­fore car­ries two points go­ing into the high-point-scor­ing re­gatta. The De­fender was sec­ond and car­ries one point.

Equally im­por­tant, the De­fender’s in­volve­ment in all but the Chal­lenger Play­offs, or semi-fi­nals, of the Cup qual­i­fiers pro­vides it with what many ob­servers feel is an­other dis­tinct ad­van­tage in that Or­a­cle Team USA will gain an un­precen­dented look at how its boat and tac­tics match up against what­ever boat will be the ultimate win­ner—not to men­tion that much more ex­pe­ri­ence in ac­tual racing con­di­tions. Be­yond that, given the role of mus­cle power this time around, it should come as no sur­prise that the av­er­age age on a Cup boat has gone down dra­mat­i­cally to some­where in the late 20s. Sim­i­larly, the clean life­style needed to com­pete has nearly wiped out the age-old beer-drink­ing sailor stereo­type, with the teams watch­ing their di­ets as closely as their ex­er­cise reg­i­mens. All other things be­ing equal, the strong­est, fittest sailor is go­ing to be the one who gets to take part in the ac­tual Cup racing, and the crews all know it.

“On the week­ends we go div­ing and spear fish­ing, but to be hon­est I spend a lot of time re­cov­er­ing,” says 25-year-old Or­a­cle Team USA grinder and bow­man Louis Sin­clair, who is par­tic­i­pat­ing in his first Amer­ica’s Cup. “The days of peo­ple go­ing out and drink­ing are long gone. My younger brother and his friends see me com­ing home and not drink­ing and train­ing more, and they know that’s what it takes to be a pro­fes­sional sailor.”

Pity to­day’s Amer­ica’s Cup sailors: in many ways what they go through be­fore they even leave the dock makes sail­ing an old 12-Me­ter or even a J Class boat look like a walk in the park. (Al­though you can bet there’s no place else they’d rather be!) Suf­fice it to say who­ever wins this thing will have earned their cham­pagne. s

Softbank Team Ja­pan‘s ACC cata­ma­ran sports a pair of con­ven­tional grind­ing pedestals in each hull to pump up the boat’s hy­draulics

Emi­rates Team New Zealand thinks that tap­ping its crew’s stronger leg mus­cles will al­low it to gen­er­ate more hy­draulic power for trim­ming the boat’s foils

The life of a Cup sailor now in­cludes end­less hours in the gym

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