34th America's Cup explained

Russell Coutts talks us the "biggest change in the history of the Cup"

Monday September 13th 2010, Author: James Boyd, Location: Spain

Few surprises today given the large amount of hints over the last few months that the 34th America’s Cup is going to be held in 72ft wingsail catamarans, but in 2013, a year earlier than we anticipated. Whether these radical changes are positive ones for the America’s Cup remains to be seen, but they, along with all the other aspects of the event BMW Oracle Racing has been examining over these last months, from course formats to the best means of televising sailing’s pinnacle event, are in our view unquestionably good for our sport.

Traditionally the America’s Cup has been one of the most conservative sailing events, perhaps befitting its lengthy heritage, but Coutts’ bold plans are set to propel it to the forefront of sailing; how our sport might have been in decades’ time if left to its own devices, only it is happening right here, right now.

As Coutts put it when asked how big a leap this was on the America’s Cup 159 year historic time line: “I think it is by far the biggest change in the history of the Cup. I can’t think of another Protocol or announcement that has been a change of this significance before.”

Why 2013?

Coutts explains: “We always wanted to have the event as quickly as possible to get the Cup back on track as soon as possible and it became pretty clear recently throughout our venue negotiations that the venues could be ready by 2013. Also in 2014 we’ve got World Cup soccer in the middle of the year and that would be difficult to work around, particularly if the venue was in Europe.”

Taking a year out of the schedule also represents a significant cost saving for teams.

Youth America’s Cup

The only surprise to us today was the 45ft one design wingsail cats in which the newly formed America’s Cup World Series will be held in 2011 as teams are building their AC72 catamarans ready for launch at the end of the year.

Coutts explains: “We are doing the 45s for two reasons, one is to get teams up and running in winged multihulls as soon as possible and they can also practice their match racing and practice the handling of the wingsail, at a much lower cost, because the 45s can be containerised and shipped around the world easily and because of their scale they are much less expensive than the 72s.”

From 2012 on, the AC45s will become the vessel for a new ‘Youth America’s Cup’ to take place annually. The format for this latter event is vague at the moment – maximum competitor age has yet to be finalised, Coutts says it might be 21 or 25. These teams are likely to be national ones fielded by yacht clubs. All positive steps.

In 2012 we will see each team's newly launched 72s competing in America's Cup World Series events. It has yet to be decided whether or not the 45 will join in too for Coutts says that they may also be used elsewhere to develop interest in the America’s Cup in new AC countries around the world, as this would be at a fraction of the cost of shipping the 72s.

Coutts reckons that funds from the main America’s Cup will go to lay on this youth series/regatta. How the 45s will be used and the youth participation will be decided in due course by the Regatta Director, when he or she is appointed sometime this autumn.

“I would suggest that many of the teams, like a team from Sweden or Australia, will want to develop these youth sailors for their future. So the rules and so forth will be determined in consultation with the competitors and also the Event Authority,” says Coutts.

The 45s have been designed by BMW Oracle Racing’s in house team and the prototype will be launched in New Zealand at the end of December ready for teams/potential buyers to trial in January.

Coutts is expecting an initial production run of 10, but suspects that there will be a greater take-up of them especially with teams likely each to want two. At present he says he genuinely doesn’t know who will build the production boats or their individual components. His having been through this process before with the RC44 though will certainly stand him in good stead.

Why cats?

Coutts says: “If we were to summarise the America’s Cup and where it should be in a brand sense – 'we need to have the best sailors in the world sailing on the fastest boats in the world' and it was hard to do that on a monohull without going really big and that would obviously be expensive to do.”

He claims to have been more pragmatic about the approach to the mono/multi decision – if you have a circuit in venues around the world then a 72ft catamaran can be squeezed into the back of a 747 cargo plane while, as mentioned, the new 45ft one design can be containerised. Ultimately multihulls are faster, have less draft and so can get closer to shore, are much much more exciting for the public to watch and they can be sailed by less people, thereby reducing team costs.

“The other big thing about these multihulls is that they can race in a wider range of conditions. They will be completely powered up in 5 knots and one of the advantages with the wing is that you can depower the wing very effectively so they can sail in a wide range of conditions and have good racing.” Much more scary is what may happen at the opposite end of the spectrum for the Protocol states that these same boats must also be able to sail, if required to, in 33 knots.

Coutts says that immediately following the 33rd America’s Cup they were more inclined towards holding the 34th in monohulls “but the more we got into it, the more we realised that actually the multihull was the thing that was making sense. We talked to a lot of people about this, not just sailors but other people involved with other sports and so on and the more info we got the more compelling the multihull became.”

But even before the 33rd America’s Cup, it was hard to find a BMW Oracle Racing team member thinking monohulls would be enticing boats to return to and one has to remember the World Sailing League - launched by Coutts and Paul Cayard back in 2007 and then quietly turned to nothing - was to be in catamarans.

Pressing the America’s Cup reset button

Coutts talks of a ‘level playing field’ and fairness surrounding the 34th America’s Cup and made a valiant effort at today’s press conference to play down the distinct advantage BMW Oracle Racing holds having a two-three year head start in their solid wingsail design compared to their rivals: “The experience from AC33 I think will be valuable for us but we certainly are not complacent, it wouldn’t stop another team coming in and doing a better job than us next time. The boat we are looking at [the AC72] in many ways is quite a lot different from the boat BMW Oracle Racing won the last America’s Cup in. So certainly there are some things which we will be slightly ahead of the game, but certainly we are not relying on that.”

At this point Vincenzo Onorato, the Challenger of Record pipped up: “You should also consider that there are a lot of teams that have great experience on monohulls. What we have done is cut down all this. It is a fresh start for all the teams that will open the chance to have some new brand new teams in the Cup.”

Coutts added later that he thought that for new teams coming into a monohull America’s Cup, the highly experienced opposition who had been in the game for so long, could be daunting. Going multihull will allow new teams to become competitive faster.

But concerns over the level playing field is certainly one Sir Keith Mills has expressed at TeamOrigin. In a statement issued soon after the press conference he said:

“Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts promised Challengers:
- A level playing field – giving teams a fair chance of winning
- Neutral event management – to ensure the event was not controlled by one team
- Cost containment – to prevent an arms race

“We now need to study the new Protocol document and determine whether it matches these promises. TeamOrigin will only challenge if the 34th America’s Cup is fair and neutrally managed.”

But the honest truth is that historically the America’s Cup always has the tables slanted in favour of the defender, it is just a question of how heavily it is slanted. If the event is to be neutrally managed, as everything we read in today’s Protocol document suggests it will be, then perhaps challengers should be thankful that this is the only area where the defender has the upper hand.

At the end of the day BMW Oracle Racing’s ability to defend the 34th America’s Cup is much more likely to come down to having Coutts in command, the best personnel and substantially larger resources (now including for example most of Alinghi’s engineering team) at their disposal, compared to the competition.

$$$$

In terms of costs, ‘20% cheaper’ was mooted at today’s press conference, but figures of 60-120 million Euros have been mentioned elsewhere, much the same as the 32nd America’s Cup. However Coutts believes that campaign costs will be less than in 2007. Our esteemed collague Richard Gladwell offered up a figure of 100 million €. Coutts responded: “If you built absolutely everything and had a very large team and everything that was allowed in the Protocol, you might get to that number depending upon which personnel you have, but you wouldn’t need to spend that number to be competitive. Smaller teams will operate on 40 million € to have a reasonable campaign.”

In terms of hardware for the 34th America’s Cup a competitive team will buy two AC45 one designs, design, R&D and build two AC72 platforms, up to 10 daggerboards and four solid wingsails. So compared to the 32nd AC that is two more one designs, the catamaran platforms will be a little more, the daggerboards will be a little more than the budget for keels last time but, significantly, it is our guess that the solid wingsails could be a cheaper alternative to a top level AC soft sail/rig program. We estimate each of the top teams spent around 8 million Euros just on building sails for the 32nd America’s Cup and probably 30-50% again on spars. This has to have cost more than four solid wingsails? As Coutts says: “Provided that you don’t break it the main spar, the wing can last the same as the life of the boat basically.”

In our view this is too much gear and should have been restricted more in these still hard economic times. However there are other significant cost saving measures being introduced for the 34th America’s Cup.

- Holding the event in 2013 rather than 2014 Coutts reckons saves 25% of a team’s campaign costs.
- Coutts also maintains that 60% of campaign costs are typically associated with personnel, a figure, he adds, that is surprisingly similar in many other team sports. Compared to the V5 boats used in 2007 to the new AC72s, crew numbers will be reduced from 17 to 11.

In addition crew costs will be further by limiting sailing periods to:
- ‘New yacht commissioning’ – 1 January 2012 until the first AC World Series regatta
- Regattas and approximately four days prior to scheduled racing
- Cup preparation from 1 November 2012 until the end of the Match.
- Promotional – seven day periods solely for promo purposes, not involving other competitors' yachts.

On the flip side there are to be more regattas on the America’s Cup World Series including three (in AC45 one designs) in 2011, seven in 2012 in AC72s and a further three in the build-up to the Match in 2013.

So ultimately the deal seems to be much more racing for a similar amount of money to 2007.

World Series

These AC World Series regattas will include a mix of match racing and fleet racing. Aside from fleet racing typically being more exciting, part of the reason is to give all competitors media exposure, not just the match race winners. But the exact format has yet to be finalised between the Regatta Director and the competitors, although Coutts of course has his own ideas: “We are seriously looking at a format that would have a one race live final fleet race. I think having the fleet of multihulls lined up and winner takes all fleet race would be pretty compelling.”

Solid wings

The exact rules for the wingsails Coutts seemed a little uncertain about. The Protocol talks about a maximum of ‘eight mast sections’. Coutts explains the wing rigs are each to be built in two halves [‘sections] for transportation, hence four in total, although he doesn’t reckon a team needs to build this many. “I doubt anyone will do that. They will end up building two wings and modifying the top or improving the flaps and things like that and your gains in a situation like that will be much better than starting again.”

Those who followed the Little America’s Cup recently and read about the C-Class wing rigs will be up to speed with this, but while C-Class catamaran rigs typically comprise three vertical ‘elements’, the middle one being a flap hinged off the trailing edge of the front element, the draft AC72 multihull rule gives examples of wing volumes, and implies a simpler two element rig (sans flap) as was fitted on BMW Oracle Racing trimaran and as will feature as the standard rig on the one design AC45 catamarans.

However Coutts isn’t certain whether the final draft of the AC72 rule will limit this or whether teams will be able to opt for a more complex but aerodynamically more powerful enlarged C-Class rig. “What has been talked about conceptually for the 72 rule is that the plan form might be fairly well defined, because that is a major performance item and we want to keep the boats fairly close.”

Remember since the C-Class has a wing area of 300sqft, which is the same upwind and downwind, maximum efficiency from the wing is vital. But with the AC72 rule they will allow the wing area to be supplemented with genoas upwind and unlimited spinnakers downwind. Maybe developing wings to provide maximum lift co-efficients won’t be so vital.

A more athletic boat

The youth aspect is also moving into the main event where interestingly Coutts seems to be disenfranchising even himself. As he points out – the majority of the top crews in the America’s Cup recently have been 40 somethings, but his view is that the next should be more of an athletic event for younger sailors.

“You have a very, very powerful boat with a 40m high wingsail and a righting moment higher than the V5 boats, but still able to be sailed with 11 people. As a result of that they will be very very physical boats. You will have to use all of your crew with maybe the exception of the helmsman and maybe two of the trimmers, the rest will be super physical roles. Tacking the boats - you will have to cross a big distance and jump on the grinders. They are going to be challenging to sail and we wanted that – we wanted the AC class to be a boat that the average sailor will look at and say i) that is cool and ii) you need to be a top sailor to sail on that boat.”

So note here – the boats won’t have powered winches as they did in the 33rd America’s Cup.

Coutts continues: “When you look at the state of the America’s Cup before today you really had quite a few sailors in their 40s and 50s on the yachts and it is supposed to be a pinnacle event in the sport. I said it earlier, it has more the appearance of the senior tour rather than the pinnacle event. I think this will bring a lot more of the sailors that have been brought up sailing skiffs and high performance boats, maybe foiling boats, those sort of sailors, kite boards, windsurfers, etc people who like speed but who also like to race.”

Or as he put it at the press conference the ‘Facebook’ generation rather than the ‘Flintstone’.

Conclusion

The acid test will be the number of teams that sign up to the 34th America's Cup. This won’t be known until the entry period concludes at the end of March 2011 and even then there is the possibility of further entries who will have to pay an undisclosed late entry fee.

Coutts is of the opinion that there will be more teams entered in a multihull 34th America’s Cup than if it were in monohulls. “We know teams wanting to buy the 45s and wanting to be the first teams to enter, so that they get benefits in terms of base positions, etc. I think we will get eight teams as a minimum and who knows what the top end will be?”

Aside from the entry take-up, our greatest concerns are over the price point for competition, especially following the 33rd America’s Cup hiatus and with the global economic melt-down. We also expect that the profound changes to the Cup, where its core values are now less on the grandiose, the prestige and history of the event and more on high octane sport entertainment for a younger generation, will see sponsors such as Prada and Louis Vuitton shy away to be replaced, hopefully, by others.

This draws us neatly back to our opening statement. There is nothing we would like to see more than a bunch of highly developed 72ft solid wingsail catamarans going yachting, but in our view the school is out on whether this and the other transformation set to take place is right for the America’s Cup. The shoreside soap opera the event traditionally delivers thanks to its ancient Deed of Gift and its wholly undemocratic constitution looks set to be tamed thanks to the neutral management on offer and so shock, horror, the interesting bit of the 34th America’s Cup could become what happens on the water. Imagine.

Latest Comments

  • James Boyd 15/09/2010 - 18:09

    The AC45s look set to be build, all or in part, at BMW Oracle Racing's own facility in Warkworth, some 50km north of Auckland. So say reports in the NZ press: http://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/local-news/rodney-times/4131802/Cup-batt...
  • Blackburn 15/09/2010 - 12:30

    KingMonkey: Hiring Alinghi's engineers, added to all the French expertise used for Dogzilla, would have to discourage the eight teams that Coutts says they are expecting, or at least hoping for. It would seem self-defeating if they have corralled all the know-how, but in the next months we'll hear the details. Another protocol stumbling block could be regards the 'Use of Patented Products', where "Use of a design or process for the Hull, appendages, Masts and other spars, rigging, and sails for which a patent has been granted or is pending is prohibited unless the design or process is available to all Competitors on a reasonable commercial basis." If brilliant new wing technology is expected, isn't it a complication if everyone is supposed to have equal access to it? But since BMWOracle have probably more patent-related gear than anyone else, maybe this is an example of magnanimity... ... I like to keep in mind that the hosts for the AC34 have celebrated their annual highlight with the famous 'Seaweed Soup". And it's outrageous, because there is NO SEAWEED in it! http://www.norcalsailing.com/archives/Entries/2010/3/7_Seaweed_Soup_Reci...
  • Blackburn 15/09/2010 - 11:39

    This website issue is a matter of developing content and traffic. See for example the "Media Commitments and Public Appearances" in the protocol. A lot of elaborate content is planned on being generated, and it isn't intended as a charity for the rest of the internet. The individual teams will probably benefit, they are promised 'exclusive use and control of all their content', so for instance Alinghi's webpages from AC33 would have been OK except for any 'moving or still images or animations of racing during the Event or Event information'. But you can imagine how the master website might have problems if it does not appear neutral between the teams. Any editorial bias in relation to good news or bad news (or bitter arguments between rivals, which fits in both categories) will cause trouble. You recall how BMWOracle set up their own completely separate show during AC33. They had their own internet broadcast with sympathetic announcers, interviews etc. all in defiance of the parallel efforts by the AC33 hosts. I'd say it looks like the protocol contains features meant to prevent anyone else repeating that behavior.
  • lbarr 15/09/2010 - 10:19

    After the fiasco of AC33 I vowed never to waste time or money on visiting another Americas Cup. I have now changed my mind! For an ordinary sailor there is not much that beats the adrenaline rush of a highly technical cat like an F18 or A-Class. The development of an AC45 one design cat and the prospect of an AC72 cat for me has brought back excitement to the Cup. Once the date and venue for the World Series is announced I will book my ticket.
  • TornadoSail2016 14/09/2010 - 20:30

    Actually from a pure standpoint of fair and balanced protocal and even start for everyone, this seems by far the closest to even as you will get. In the past the event has always been seriously slanted towards the defender so if the only area in which they have an advantage is with the boat, then there is not much to complain about. There is plenty of talent out there on the design side available and with the introduction of the 45's as a starting point you have the ability to get up to speed quickly. Anyone further interested should probably contact some of the c-class gurus, which has already begun happening. I hope though that this does not adversely effect the C-Class itself.
  • mauisailor 14/09/2010 - 19:26

    What is the point of not being able to have their "own" websites? I would be interested in hearing from someone who could "actually" explain that one...
  • strongarm 14/09/2010 - 13:11

    The Americas Cup is no longer the yacht racing event it once was, it is now a commercial exercise the main objective being to attract media interest, viewing figures, sponsorship and ultimately cash. 72 foot cats hurtling around a racecourse at 20 knots plus will make a fantastic spectacle, but it will also make for a pretty boring match race which is what the AC is supposed to be about. There is no doubt that monohulls are the best boats in which to go match racing and make for the closest racing; exciting for people who understand the finer points of the sport, but pretty boring for the general viewing public. Perhaps the time has come for people to stop referring to the Americas Cup as the ‘pinnacle of our sport’, it may be the pinnacle of sailing but is not the pinnacle of the sport of the sailing.
  • invictus 14/09/2010 - 12:23

    Why are they always affraid of no close racing, the Little AC saw plenty of this with only 3 basic rules guiding the design of the boat, length, width, sail area. What was so great about the 2010 AC was seeing the different approach taken by each team. In the end, boats will converge, but we have to remember, this is a race that starts NOW, it is a race in the first instance of the designers and builders, and then they get to test and race on the water. Dont constrain the design more than you have to in fear of what probably will not happen!
  • melges20 14/09/2010 - 11:16

    Well,,,,is this progress??? We will all see,,,,I am glad that there is some hope fro developing youth sailors,,,just what this sport needs...
  • KingMonkey 14/09/2010 - 10:03

    "The fairest cup ever", and yet the elephant in the room remains and - as I have just found out from this article - is actually much larger. Coutts fobs off their 3-year experience practicing match racing in multihulls, and designing a similar, if not entirely identical, boat as not being relevant. Now we hear that, not only has he hired, in the Alinghi engineering team, the only other people who could have helped other syndicates catch up, but also, the BO design team have just put together - with the headstart that only the defender could have had - the design for an AC72 miniature in the shape of the AC45 one design. I'm afraid in my view, anyone who doesn't see that as an absurd, unsporting advantage is pretty deluded. And hiring 'most of' the Alinghi engineers before anyone knew what the boat was is pretty cynical.
  • andyn 14/09/2010 - 08:36

    Looking through the Protocol I see that teams are not allowed their own websites - and that instead each team will be given space on americascup.com. So much for creating fan bases and innovative online communications. Can you imagine Liverpool FC, or Red Bull Racing being told they cannot run their own site. Will be interesting to see this (not) working in practice...

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