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America's Cup

Last September, the 2013 race came to an end off the coast of San Francisco, with the participation of Emirates Team New Zealand supported by Nespresso. We reflect on a legendary trophy which is also a showcase for innovation and incredible performances.

THE AMERICA’S CUP SHOULD NEVER BE THOUGHT OF AS THE FORMULA 1 OF THE SEAS! IT IS MUCH BETTER, MUCH MORE TECHNICAL AND MUCH MORE AMBITIOUS. IT TOOK FORMULA 1 THIRTY YEARS TO IMPROVE ON THE MONACO TRACK RECORD BY AN EIGHTH. MEANWHILE, THE AMERICA’S CUP SAW ITS YACHTS DOUBLE IN SPEED OVER THE SAME PERIOD. Formula 1 still clings to the ground with four century-old wheels while the yachts in competition today have cast off the sails of the past and the Archimedes principle in order to get ahead of the future. The America’s Cup is nothing like Formula 1, it is more like Star Trek, except that it isn’t cinema – this spectacle requires no special effects.

The oldest sporting trophy in the world started out high-tech. In 1851, the Yankee sails were mechanically woven and prevailed over the British hand-spun linen sails. The young Queen Victoria wrote in her private diary that the American yacht was “built according to principles that are a great deal different from our own, and causes a great sensation”. The Americans held on to the trophy for 132 years because of their technical dominance and when they finally lost in 1983, the Cup changed hands. Yet, technology is only a means to victory, just as a hammer is only a tool for driving in a nail: someone needs to hold the handle – and this is not achieved on water.

Surprisingly, the biggest sailing competition is won on dry land! Participants (4 in 2013) benefit from the influence of a multinational and the R&D budget of a big company, though their size is more like that of a small business. Their 150 to 200 employees are chosen from among the best in the world. And of course, they come up with lots of ideas, one or two per person per day. So there are usually a few thousand ideas to sort through every month. After three years of preparation, the winner is the one who has chosen the best solutions. “We don’t race to win the Cup,” says multiple-winner Dennis Conner, “we race to see who has already won.”

It was even more important to master technology this year, because everyone started from scratch. The Cup holders came up with the idea of racing the most radical yachts ever created: “tennis courts” topped with the wing of an A380 (the biggest aircraft in the world). These catamarans are almost four times lighter than the monohulls which competed between 1992 and 2007. Their rigid sails have lift-increasing aircraft flaps and spit out up to three times more lift per square metre than a traditional sail. In addition to technical difficulties, they had to overturn an age-old idea – yachts naturally lacked power, and nothing could prepare them to handle the excess power of the new rigid sails. It was the great unknown, and there was no other way to go than to make the yachts fly over the water by grafting wings that fly through the water, or foils, onto them. Without their lift, the catamarans really did not have enough stability. The result was spectacular...

In the early 1980s, when Cup yacht speeds strained up to 6 m/s, the crew went wild! Ten years later, their successors clocked 10-11 m/s and crews returned starry-eyed (when the salt on their eyelids was not making them cry). Now at 20 m/s, the boat rises out of the water like a lift and accelerates like a rocket. The noise of the crashing waves becomes more like the swish of skis - the Archimedes barrier has been broken and the yachts now fly...

We will soon fulfil this incredible dream of sailing against the wind at the speed of the wind! This feat is only possible by combining the existing wind with the one created by the speed of the boat. While spectators enjoy a lovely breeze, the crew suffer a Force 9 arctic gale which, on land, would send tiles and tree branches flying.

In addition to this struggle against the elements and human and technical limitations, there are the rules. They “complicate things”, admits Russell Coutts, four-time winner and the man who came up with these rules. “They stop us from using all the resources available.” Having specified sails that are too powerful, the rules make foils unavoidable but prohibit us from controlling them with modern techniques – a little bit as if we were required to use steam engines to power computers. So the engine is a series of crew members who continually operate hydraulic pumps. Keep pumping! Even when the yachts are stationary, these workers have to keep pumping to control the wing. What makes the situation even more bizarre is that now that yachts fly, length is no longer essential: smaller units, free of the regulatory weights, will go faster (the current record of 121.2 kph belongs to a yacht half the size of the Cup racers).

So the contraptions that flew over San Francisco bay this summer are dead in the water: progress is ruthless. We will remember them as former visions of the future, honoured alongside the lunar rocket and the Concorde.


For nearly twenty years, New Zealand has monopolised the America’s Cup. The New Zealanders won in 1995 and 2000, then New Zealand defectors brought victory to the Swiss in 2003 and 2007 and the Americans in 2010. In 2013, little old New Zealand, with a population equal to that of Croatia, once again gave us the Emirates Team New Zealand Challenger (Nespresso is the Proud Sponsor of ETNZ and Official Coffee of the 34th America’s Cup) and managed the American Oracle Defender. And it is the Defender that finally won: the Cup stays in the USA.

Text Daniel Charles - Photography Chris Cameron / Emirates Team New Zealand

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