“It’s the first America's Cup in which you have to reinvent a way to sail,” says Laurent Chatillon, the Airbus engineer who has been working for two years in Bermuda with Oracle Team USA, who will launch the final phase of their quest for a third straight America’s Cup tomorrow (June 14).
“These boats are flying,” Chatillon says. “It's really the third dimension.”
The 50-foot America’s Cup twin-hulled catamarans would be unrecognisable not only to the sailors of the first America’s Cup in 1851 but to those competing 15 years ago.
Gone are the canvas sails, replaced by the towering carbon fiber fixed-wing sail.
The grinders, built like rugby players, no longer crank winches to trim traditional sails but to produce the hydraulic energy necessary to operate the boat. In some cases, they’re using cycle-style pedals to do it, rather than arm-powered winches.
As the six crew – helmeted like race car drivers – go about their business on the water hundreds of sensors relay information on every aspect of the boat’s performance to a team’s base camps for instant analysis.
The skipper oversees it all from a command post more and more like the cockpit of an airplane.
It all produces racing at speeds three-times faster than the wind as the L-shaped hydrofoils allow the boats’ hulls to rise a metre from the surface of the water, thus reducing drag.
Amid the sophisticated aerodynamics and algorithms that underlie the breathtaking spectacle, instinct still plays a key role.
As part of a technological partnership initiated in 2012, Airbus exchanged some of its manufacturing techniques with Oracle, in particular three-dimensional printing and laboratory tests that saved time in the design process.
The team drew on the expertise of traditional marine engineers and aerospace experts to interpret data, but not everything comes down to numbers.
But not all sailing enthusiasts have welcomed the emergence of the foiling catamarans first introduced to the America's Cup in 2013 in San Francisco.
But Oracle general manager Grant Simmer insists that the venerable competition – said to be the oldest trophy in international sport – has always been about pushing boundaries.
“Traditionalists don’t like catamarans,” Simmer says. “Some people don’t like foils. But the fact is that we are at the top level of the sport and the kids of today want to go sailing on foils.
“It’s very good that they can see their heroes at the Cup, they can see boats foiling around, they can aspire to that.”