More on the America's Cup

On Oracle's win, auto-rake mechanisms, media interest and a potential challenge of record

Friday September 27th 2013, Author: James Boyd, Location: United States

Just at a time when the WAGs had got to being on first name terms with the Auckland realtors, so Oracle Team USA bankrupted the bookies by coming from 8:1 down to reach 8:9, successfully defending the 34th America’s Cup in one of sport’s biggest turnarounds.

Even if this result was unimaginable in the middle of last week with Emirates Team New Zealand dominating the regatta early on, given the subsequent strong performance of Oracle Team USA over the final week of the regatta, and her unbroken winning streak, Wednesday's outcome was not unexpected.

In the final post-race press conference (see below), Grant Dalton said that his team had learned from Valencia in 2007 when they had peaked for the Louis Vuitton Cup final and on this occasion had geared their campaign towards peaking on the first day of the America’s Cup match itself, ie the sailing team’s performance and in particular their design effort. Unfortunately while the Kiwis started out with the upper hand in performance terms, during the America’s Cup match itself they seemed to be comparatively stagnant in upping their game, while Oracle Team USA proved able to successfully introduce many more developments, both in terms of how they were sailing their AC72 and the ability of their design and technical team to eek out more speed from their AC72. 

As Grant Dalton observed: the upwind delta between the two AC72s changed by 1.5 minutes in Oracle Team USA’s favour over the course of week and a half. “That is a huge improvement that they have made. At the bottom end of one tack today we hit 14 knots - a month ago we were bottoming out at 10/11, so we have improved a huge amount as well, but I guess in the end we weren’t quick enough...”

You have to feel for the Kiwis, particularly given the huge support and fan base they have. Famously they were leading what could have been the decisive race only for it to be canned, falling out of the time limit. But equally in another they came really really close to capsizing their boat –a couple of degrees more and realistically their campaign would have come to a sudden end in an explosion of carbon.

It is generally felt that the tables turned for the defender after race five when they asked for a postponement from race six and got to spend the next two days changing their boat. Just what they did at this stage has been the subject of much conjecture.

Replacing local hero John Kostecki with Ben Ainslie as tactician was a bold call, but certainly from then on the communication loop in the afterguard between Ainslie, helmsman Jimmy Spithill and strategist Tom Slingsby appeared to be much improved and there were less ‘ambitious’ tactical calls after this. However, generally throughout the competition Oracle appeared slightly more prepared to carry out harder manoeuvres than the Kiwis, such as the late gybe going into the leeward gate in the final race – the extra hydraulic pumping requiring a further big effort from the grinders.

It should also be considered that Ainslie and Barker have previously raced together both in the Finn class (which of course Ainslie dominated) and also when Ainslie was Barker’s tune-up partner in the build up to the 32nd America’s Cup in 2007. We imagine that the British Olympic legend may still hold some ability to intimidate the Kiwi skipper.

Throughout the competition Oracle Team USA was developing its AC72’s rudder and wing-set up. Early in the America’s Cup matches, not enough sheet was being applied and the windward hull wasn’t flying high enough. As a result the lateral part of the foil – the equivalent area to a surfboard - was crashing through the wave tops, causing both speed-sapping drag, but also giving the crew a thorough Southern Ocean-style soaking. Following this Oracle began to cant the weather board, so that the lifting part of the foil was tucked up out of the way – the result: less drag and a drier ride. This in turn helped with their straight line speed.

Upwind they also made a big gain through developing their understanding of how and when to foil upwind – this culminated in their achieving an impressively fast upwind ‘skimming mode’ (without making prohibitive leeway) at a lower wind speed than the Kiwis (around the mid-20s).
For some reason Oracle Team USA was very late to master the ‘roll tacks’, that the Kiwis have been perfecting throughout this competition, where the rake of the new weather board is adjusted to give positive lift going into tacks, to help pop the hull out.

Stable ride

Of more significance, and the subject of some controversy at present, is Oracle Team USA’s alleged use of some form of active control, to automatically adjust the rake of its daggerboards. This is believed to be a hoax.

Firstly, as we have written about extensively over the last few weeks, the stability of an AC72’s ride when foiling is mainly down to the configuration of the foils being used – thus the more V-like the set-up, the more the boat will auto-stabilise downwind, while the L-configuration boards, as used on the Oracle Team USA AC72 early on, required much more active trimming to achieve a stable ride, but with the advantage of being less draggy. Whatever the configuration, the board must be canted back to the vertical as far as possible when sailing upwind, to reduce leeway.

So there is some ride stability available from the shape of the boards. However it is possible to achieve ride stability from regular adjustment of the leeward foil’s rake - although achieving this automatically seems impossible under the rules.

It is not overly complex to use a rate gyro to determine the movement and acceleration of a moving object, such as a boat, in three dimensions. Relatively cheap versions of this kit have been available for ages, such as the KVH GyroTrac and more recently, fabulously expensive, faster and much more accurate alternatives from iXSea such as their Hydrins ‘navigation sensor’. This latter kit was used by a few of the more wealthy campaigns in the last Volvo Ocean Race to improve the accuracy of the derived functions of their performance instruments (such as true wind speed and angle).

With minimal jiggery pokery, this kit could be hooked up to a ‘linear actuator’ controlling, a smallish hydraulic ram, making continuous small, but rapid adjustment to the rake/pitch of the leeward foil. The effect would be much the same as the way a wand controls the trim tab on a Moth’s foil, to create a stable ride.

However the rules seem to through up two seemingly insurmountable problems:

Section 19.2 (‘Manual Power and Stored Energy’) of the AC72 rule states that ‘the use of stored energy and non-manual power is prohibited, except:

... (e) for electrical operation of
(i) hydraulic valves. These operations shall only provide the input for the position of the valve;
(ii) drive clutches in winch systems.
....The operation for (i) and (ii) above, shall not receive external input from any source other than manual input.”

So the above rule prohibits the use of a rate gyro - or indeed any other device - from being hooked up to the actuator being used to control the ram adjusting the rake control. So effectively it is only possible for a crewman (usually the helmsman) to operate the valve by flicking a switch.

And then how is the system driven? Use of battery power is strictly regulated – to power instruments, on board crew communication and ACRM media equipment, as well as the operation of hydraulic valves and the drive clutches in winch systems. So an electronic hydraulic pump cannot be used (as was permitted for the 33rd AC). It is possible to highly pressurise a hydraulic system, that might provide a very short term way of storing energy, but the rules stipulate that this cannot exceed 6 bar (in order to provide back pressure and prevent cavitation). So the only way that such a system can be driven legally is by the grinders continually maintaining hydraulic pressure.

This issue came under scrutiny by both the Measurement Committee and the International Jury during the AC. The former issued public interpretations of the AC72 rule - no 49 on 8 August, no 52 on 27 August and no 54 on 31 August. No49 confirmed that an electronic actuator could be used to control a hydraulic valve, while no52 addresses the legality of an unlabelled item depicted between the actuator and the valve in the diagram accompanying PI49. PI54 makes the point that an electrically operated linear actuator cannot be used to adjust rigging, wing, soft sails, rudders and daggerboards.

Following these interpretations, on 3 September Emirates Team New Zealand sought a decision from the International Jury, maintaining that the Measurement Committee had exceeded its jurisdiction by effectively amending the class rule. Unfortunately upon contemplating this they threw out the Kiwis’ request on the basis that it was made outside of the 14 days time limit required by the Protocol.

Now of course, no matter how much foot stamping the Kiwis do, the case is closed, Oracle Team USA has won the 34th America’s Cup and that’s the end of it. If Oracle Team USA did have any secret device – which they have since stated they haven’t – then it will remain their secret.

However it is something that the Oracle Team USA should serious condition legalising for the 35th America’s Cup. Such a system would make foiling the new boat, whether it is an AC72 or an AC60, much much safer.

Media interest

That the outcome of the 34th went to the wire, to the full 19 races, allowed interest to build hugely in the event in San Francisco as well as around the world, and in particular in New Zealand, where the government invested NZ$ 36 million into the campaign.

According to CEO Grant Dalton, his team’s performance attracted unparalleled interest back home in New Zealand. “TVNZ said it was the highest rated program that they have ever had in the history of the country. That first race day, the All Blacks were playing the Pumas, Argentina, and the Silver Ferns, and the netball teams were playing Australian – the two combined audiences were smaller than the America’s Cup audience by like half a million people.” One can only imagine the viewing figures for the winner-takes-all final race in this sport-mad country – which surely must help the ETNZ cause if they are to return for the 35th AC (let’s hope that Grant Dalton doesn’t feel he is obliged to leave).

Even in the UK, the event has gained huge profile, even though there has been no British team taking part, the attraction obviously being the ‘Ainslie’ factor within Oracle Team USA.

The America’s Cup matches themselves mostly dispelled earlier criticism (even from us!) that the ultra-fast AC72s would not provide close racing. Seeing two airborne boats, both travelling along at 40 knots, separated by a boat length, will remain with us for a while, as will the bearaways around the top mark with just the leeward foil tips bearly clinging to the water and the incredible post-race fly-bys in front of the crowds that gave the best impression of the scale and speed of the boats.

Conversely, the Louis Vuitton Cup, on previous occasions usually the more interesting series, failed to deliver thanks to Artemis Racing’s late appearance on the race course that left Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand’s AC72 frequently sailing around the course on their own and then the relatively unequal match between the Kiwis and Luna Rossa, unsurprisingly given the Italian team was racing the Mk1 version of the Kiwi team’s AC72.

Part of the interest was due to the massive investment in the TV product and the ability to be able to view it on YouTube. We have written previously about the TV production set-up for the 34th America’s Cup, that started out in Cascais in 2011 with more than 120 people working on it (although this was pared back dramatically) and the tracking system Stan Honey was commissioned by Larry Ellison to develop, that allowed course boundaries, etc (including the stars and stripes flag on the water at the finish line on Wednesday), to be superimposed in real time over live video footage.

Now that Oracle Team USA has won, we hope that this will be further develop.

Challenger of Record

Chris Clarey is reporting in the New York Times that, in an unexpected twist, Hamilton Island Yacht Club is to be the Challenger of Record for the 35th America’s Cup. Hamilton Island is of course the development owned by the Oatley family. Father Bob, obviously owns the repeated Rolex Sydney-Hobart winner, Wild Oats XI, while his eldest son Sandy is also a keen yachtsman and an experimenter – he had Q, the radical flying bulb canting keel built to a design by Reichel Pugh (more about this here).

Joining the dots – who is a long term Wild Oats XI crewman and also co-creator of the Hamilton Island Resort as well as being Commodore of the Hamilton Island Yacht Iain Murray, presently the CEO of America’s Cup Race Management and the long suffering Regatta Director of the 34th America’s Cup.

If this all proves true it will be great to have Australia back in the America’s Cup for the first time since Young Australian in 2000, which introduced the talents of one Jimmy Spithill.

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