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Yachting: Start To Finish by Barry Pickthall
Yachting: Start To Finish by Barry Pickthall

America's Cup: 12 months of AC75 sailing, three months to World Series start

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 27 Sep 05:50 BST 27 September 2020
Te Aihe sailing fast in light winds with her Code Zero working well - Emirates Team New Zealand - Waitemata Harbour - September 22, 2020 - 36th America's Cup © Richard Gladwell / Sail-World.com / nz

It has been 12 months since the first AC75's started sailing - Emirates Team New Zealand in Auckland, and American Magic in Rhode Island. It's just three months to the first/third America's Cup World Cup Series.

Without the COVID-19 pandemic, we would have more answers on the AC75 than we have now.

Two America's Cup World Series events would have been staged in late April in Cagliari, Sardinia and early June in Portsmouth UK. All first launched AC75's would then have either returned to their home country for more test sailing based on what had been learned from Cagliari and Portsmouth. We'd know whether ETNZ the current America's Cup champions still led the world, or if the Challengers had caught up in the new boat type.

Over the past 12 months, four AC75's have been launched. Two are of the skiff hull genre, and two of the scow design type.

Having had a close look at the "scow" style over the last month, it is a very interesting, and multi-faceted design approach, looking quite different in three dimensions than the two of video and still images.

In practice, new AC75 class rule can be bent into different shapes by the designers, which is very healthy for a restricted class. That's despite restrictions in forward section measurements, which should have forced the boats into a more common design one direction. That hasn't happened yet - possibly because the hull has to be dual-purpose - be able to sail like a yacht, and fly like a jet.

From a class perspective, it is healthy that the rule isn't so restricted that it forces a particular canoe body shape from the outset. Otherwise, you may as well use one-designs and dispense with design teams.

The AC75 must do two functions - float as well as fly, and as yet there is no definitive view as to which function should be dominant.

We can look back to the 2013 America's Cup and the AC72's where Oracle Racing, with its better aerodynamic profile, was more efficient in the air than Emirates Team New Zealand. The kiwi's AC72 had more volume in her hulls (being designed to sail in a 33kt wind limit) and could better recover from a nosedive - as seen in one bear away in the Challenger Final. The wise heads say that the boat that spends the most time in the air - preferably doing dry laps will win.

No disruptive teams

Unfortunately, the three Late Challengers were unable to make it to Auckland. Six Notices of Challenge were accepted of the 11 received, but just three challengers are remaining in the 36th America's Cup.

All are so-called "Super Teams", with top-shelf campaigns. Each has launched and sailed a single AC75, and will be building two boats. Of the Semi-finalists seeking to become the Challenger in previous Cups, there have usually been three outstanding teams, with a fourth making up the numbers. The America's Cup is very much a case of Potential minus Mistakes equals Performance, this formula is suitable for doing quick assessments before a series, and with the benefit of hindsight - as a check for next time.

In the absence of the three Late Challengers, there are no single boat teams who, one way or another go on to contest future America's Cups.

A prime example is Jimmy Spithill, who got his break as part of a team with a $500k budget - of the next four Cup cycles, Spithill helmed two winners. Would he have got his break in a superteam, without the Young Australia experience? Most unlikely. Spithill did join Luna Rossa for the 2007 Cup, and then won the 2010 and 2013 America's Cups with Oracle Racing.

A scan down the crew list from Tag Heuer from the 1995 Cup saw many who had been blooded in their first Cup, sail with other teams in 2000 and beyond. The contribution of the underfunded, always struggling, single boat teams are never given their proper recognition, and this is why these teams should be encouraged and not attacked from the outset by the "realists".

In the current Cup, the single boat teams could have added the spark of being able to stage an upset result and disrupt the dry professionalism of the Super-Teams.

For various reasons, they haven't made it, but the 2021 Cup is the poorer for their absence.

Challenger catchup

If the AC50 were chosen again for 2021, it would have been surprising - given the relative starting points of the teams, if any of the challengers could catch the current America's Cup champion, Emirates Team New Zealand.

With the foiling monohull, there is much more of a chance that will happen. None of the Challengers has said they would like ETNZ's first-generation boat - opting instead for Luna Rossa's design approach.

Time will tell if it is their heads or hearts that are making that call.

No continuity

Except for the British, which had grown out of the former Land Rover BAR, none of the challengers from Bermuda has continued onto Auckland.

In many ways this is not surprising given the nature of the Bermuda regatta - it was sailed for the first and so far only time in one designs. Plus the defender, Oracle Team USA was involved with several of the challengers.

A re-badged challenger, INEOS Team UK, is the only challenger that has continued to Auckland. Formerly Land Rover BAR, INEOS Team UK is under new backing, and with the largest single sponsorship in sailing history. It is now quite a different shaped team from that which competed in Bermuda - where they were off the pace, for reasons which are still not definitively clear.

The three Challenger teams have a lot of work to catch the current champion, Emirates Team NZ, in the vital area of simulator development and performance analysis. As well they have to assemble design, sailing, and shore teams, get the chemistry working, and get across the new design rule.

Aside from the return of some "borrowed" Italians to Luna Rossa, very few of ETNZ's team have departed following the Bermuda win.

While the functions of the team have been changed dramatically, there has been minimal churn within the team.

The former shore support team is now also a construction team with its own premises on Auckland's North Shore and is responsible for the boat-building function within the team. Previously a contracted boatbuilder(s) built the team's boats - right back into the 12 Metre era.

The design team is working from NZ right through to the end of the Cup - without the distraction of having to relocate to the Match venue. Plus they are working in a 5G, F1 style environment - testing in realtime from the team base by monitoring performance data from the boat while it is running through the day's test script on the water.

That's quite a different story from uplifting the disks with the day's performance data at the end of each day, and then comparing that with an issues log compiled by the design team based on observations on the water and crew feedback.

Sail designers coming back into Team New Zealand after being not required during the one-design AC50 era, have commented on the degree of reliance the team places on their simulators to provide answers to design questions and issues.

Whether the performance applications and simulators continue, or expand their dominance and influence, or are overrated will only be known after the event.

Sail designers are again a vital part of the team, having to deal with the intricacies of a double-skinned mainsail - which seems to be working much better than initially envisaged. Like hull design, we are seeing some quite different approaches, which is always very healthy.

Plus the designers need to work up sail designs that can perform from single-digit true windspeeds up 50kts or more apparent wind speed. Then there are the diverse questions that have to be answered on the Code Zero, including design, use and furling systems, and the crossovers - if indeed using the sail is really worth the effort.

Despite most having not seen the AC75 sailing first-hand, there has been an abundance of criticism aimed at the new foiling monohull class and boat concept, despite the new class having not even sailed a race. Most of the critics have never seen an AC75 sail at first-hand.

Two AC75's have capsized, another has nosedived at 50kts, at least three have done sky leaps - where the whole AC75 jumps clear of the water. And then there have been spectacular rolls to windward when the foiling physics get out of kilter. Plus a dismasting, and broken bobstay (not a supplied part) which caused hull damage.

That's quite a litany of incidents from just four boats. But from what we know at present, the worst-case scenario with all these mishaps -aside from dismasting and bobstay break - is that the AC75 will capsize like a centreboarder. It will lie on its side waiting to be towed upright - a process which takes less than five minutes.

While the team may be out of the current race, it will be able to race in the second of the day, if there is one.

When the AC75 has one of these hiccups, all that happens is the boat comes back upright and waits for the crew to gather their wits. The second-generation AC75's are expected to fix the unintended design feature, which triggers the nose dives and sky-leaps and is believed to be common to all first-generation AC75's.

In early September, two AC75's were out race training around laid marks in winds of up to 30kts. Could they have done that in AC50's (ETNZ nosedived in 21.5kts in Bermuda) or AC72's?

Why Challenger numbers declined

The much-vaunted IACC Rule was used for 16 years and produced 100 boats.

But it had a new version each Cup, which obsoleted the existing fleet each time. In the end, the IACC Rule boffins came up with an 83ft long boat that could be beaten around the track by a TP52. It's not a good look for what is supposed to be the world's premier sailing event.

Many erroneously claim that the radical design choice of the AC72 and then AC50 was responsible for the fall-off in Challenger numbers from 2007 to 2013. But that line conveniently forgets that the America's Cup was tied up in the New York Supreme Court for four years from 2007-2010.

Louis Vuitton tried valiantly to keep the Cup alive with their 2009 Pacific Trophy Series, in Auckland and a companion series in Europe. But that event ran out of legs, and teams - some new, some existing - who were unable to afford the cost of competing in an ongoing exhibition series.

To compound the issues created by the fallout from the action in the New York Supreme Court, Golden Gate YC/Oracle Racing came up with the AC72 wingsailed catamaran as the America's Cup Class to be used in their first Defence.

But the rule-writers didn't realise they had left a loophole in the rule to allow for foiling, which caused a substantial change in design approach for two of the teams. Two of the first generation boats (USA and Sweden) broke up before the series started. At a similar juncture in the 2021 America's Cup, there have been four first-generation boats launched, all four AC75's have been sailed hard, and the worst outcome has been a couple of capsizes.

It seems that the class rule developers built a full performance simulator to test the concept that became the AC75. That is a comprehensive if expensive approach, but avoids the issues that bedevilled the first generation AC72 boats.

There has been a high rate of churn of classes/boat types since the 1992 America's Cup, and the decision to drop the 12 Metre class. There have been a total of six classes used or proposed in nine Matches from 1992-2021 period.

That statistic includes the Deed of Gift Match in 2010, and the AC62 which was stated as the class for nine months leading into the 2017 Cup before being switched out in April 2015.

The Kiwis took a pounding in the international press, and more so in the kiwi media after the 2013 event. But USA won 11 races to 8 by the Kiwis which is a more accurate result of Oracle's superiority. While many were (and still are) derisory of Emirates Team NZ's performance, what would the 2013 America's Cup have been without ETNZ?

Artemis Racing spent a million dollars a racing minute in the just the LV Round Robin. Luna Rossa, who was a late starter and would not have been there at all but for ETNZ's leg-up with an AC72 design package.

Instead of being one of the most memorable of America's Cups, San Francisco in 2013, without the Kiwis would have been the most forgettable.

In 2017 America's Cup only three of the six teams could claim to be genuinely independent. Five of the six teams signed up to "The Framework", designed to perpetuate the AC50 into the 36th America's Cup, and cast subsequent Cups in the template of the 2017 event. Unfortunately for five Framework proponents, the sixth team won in Bermuda.

In the Class of 2021, all four teams are completely independent and are from clubs with a strong America's Cup heritage and respect for the trophy as a sailing event.

Any of the 2021 Challengers would stage an excellent America's Cup, in their home waters, and it is a long time since that comment has been able to be made.

Mistakes made?

If there have been mistakes made in the transition to the AC75 class and the Auckland venue, it has been that from the outset there was no meeting in Auckland of potential Challengers which was a feature of a new Cup cycle up to 2007, and certainly builds momentum and focus early in the Cup cycle.

In 1988, Michael Fay was quick to get the Challenger Meeting process running when New Zealand was awarded the Cup temporarily by the New York Supreme Court. There were closed sessions and open to media sessions for the Auckland event, including a cruise around the Hauraki Gulf - angled at both selling the event and country.

ETNZ's Grant Dalton got the 2021 America's Cup off to a good start in the final media conference in Bermuda, answering two of the three basic questions and ruling out one option with the third.

Dalton gave an indicative year for the event - answering the timing question. The venue would be New Zealand - putting an end to the venue shopping of the 2007 and 2017 America's Cups.

Boat type was not answered in Bermuda, but Dalton, who'd won a round the world race in a 120ft catamaran, did rule out the use of the AC50 - saying he would not like to see the boat used in an easterly (onshore) breeze, with the wind against the tide situation in Auckland.

The other questions as to Nationality were answered in the Protocol, published three months later in September. The class concepts were released two months after the Protocol at the end of November 2017. The first version of the class rule was published at the end of March 2018 - just nine months after ETNZ won the trophy in the AC50.

It was delay and frustration with the new holder San Diego YC in announcing a Cup venue, dates of the Defence, and class which triggered the 1988 Deed of Gift Challenge by Mercury Bay Boating Club.

While many are critical of Dalton holding a dual CEO role with the event and team - it certainly paid off in Bermuda - where answers could be given on all aspects of the next Cup - without having to defer to others. Refreshingly Dalton could talk frankly with the media, and if he didn't know the specific answer to a point - such as if the AC50 would be used - he could at least say what he was thinking, without the risk of later contradiction by a successor. It is essential in America's Cup communication that there is one clear, candid, consistent voice, who has substantial experience in the Cup and Event.

A big issue with the past Cups has been the multiplicities in organisation, multiple CEO's, mixed messaging, flawed dreams, and poor decision making by those with no prior Cup experience or understanding.

Holding a Competitors Meeting does have the significant advantage of bringing local and national politicians into the America's Cup venue and tuning up their thinking. For most, it is their first encounter with the America's Cup, other than feet up in front of the TV, with a drink in hand.

A Challenger Meeting in 2007, ahead of what was to be 33rd America's Cup, immediately after the Alinghi victory in the 2007 Cup, attracted 19 teams from 12 different countries who were presented with an AC90, the new design concept for a proposed event in 2009/2010.

While Prada staged their spectacular America's Cup Overture Event in Cowes, it is not Auckland. TheCoR36 runs the Challenger of Record's functions but it is not CoR36's role to maximise economic and business benefit for NZ Inc from the 2021 America's Cup. That's MBIE's role - but given their hard line on matters COVID-19, the opportunity cost of that approach is proving to be substantial. Their argument with ETNZ and America's Cup Event Ltd over the AC75 class design costs at USD$2.05million is chump change when measured against the projected economic benefits that are now being turned aside.

The lack of America's Cup understanding amongst New Zealand politicians and others on the edges of those circles has been a continuing issue with staging the Cup in Auckland.

Fundamental to that misunderstanding is that the America's Cup is not a World Rugby Cup. There is no ongoing or central body. The current holder is the owner of the next Cup. That is Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, and its team Emirates Team New Zealand.

Sadly the old America's Cup stereotypes, of it being a rich person's sport were overlaid onto perceptions of the 2021 event, and the people involved. It came as no surprise that negotiations between Cup rights holders and governmental bodies (Panuku Developments excepted) became stalemated and the Cup almost moved to an alternate Italian venue.

Brinksmanship is a game frequently played by the New Zealand authorities, cheered on by the mainstream media, looking for a headline. Too often, the panjandrums believe an unthinkable outcome will never happen and clearly haven't learned the lessons of losing the 2003 Rugby World Cup hosting to Australia.

However tortuous the route, Auckland did get there in the end, with an America's Cup facility that was constructed ahead of time, under budget, and which has tidied up a century-old eyesore on the Auckland waterfront.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated NZ domestic issues with the America's Cup.

Around a dozen events were originally set down to be part of the America's Cup regatta festival. Most of these are suspended or have already been cancelled by NZ Government's MBIE and Dept of Health's refusal to grant Exemptions to cross NZ's closed borders.

The harsh application of rules effectively excludes international fans, sponsors, VIPs, superyacht owners, marine industry leaders, along with other high net-worth individuals and their families.

For an all too brief 90 minutes on Monday afternoon, during a test event, we saw how the 2021 America's Cup should unfold, and 2021 will be an excellent Cup for the spectacle and the racing, as well as being transformational for the sporting world.

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