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Fast Track to the Cup

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Chris Dickson, helmsman of the BMW Oracle America’s Cup team, keeps his hands steady on the carbon-fiber wheel of the just-launched USA 87, careful not to push the 79-foot yacht beyond its limits in the 21 mph gusts off the coast of Valencia, Spain. Despite Dickson’s caution, the yacht is in no real danger: It has been designed to sail safely into 34 mph winds, and it should leave previous-generation Cup boats floundering in its wake.

Nevertheless, the typically stoic Dickson is apprehensive about USA 87’s maiden run, and the rest of the 18-man crew senses his concern. As previous tests of this kind have demonstrated, theory does not always translate into reality with new yacht designs: Keels shear off; rudders seize; masts snap. On this late March morning on the Mediterranean, as wind forces equivalent to 55 tons of pressure bear down on the newly installed mast and rigging, the helmsman, who is also the CEO of the 140-person BMW Oracle team, is aware that any major breakage on USA 87 could set the campaign back months—and time is the one resource this well-funded group does not have.

With the yacht facing upwind, Dickson maintains a tight rein, filling her sails cautiously. She heels a degree at a time, like a young Thoroughbred finding its legs on a new track. Two hours later, much to Dickson’s relief, the yacht returns to the base without incident. “We have the new toy and confirm that what we received is what we ordered,” he announces later that day at the team’s headquarters in Valencia.

By May, Dickson’s relief is giving way to cautious optimism. USA 87 now is participating in the Louis Vuitton Acts, a series of races that lead up to next April’s Louis Vuitton Cup, the contest that will produce the challenger against the boat from the Swiss syndicate Alinghi in the America’s Cup in June. The American yacht has just competed in Louis Vuitton Act 10 off Valencia, racing against teams from Italy, New Zealand, and South Africa, and it has won for the second time in the Acts thus far. USA 87 “is possibly the most innovative America’s Cup Class yacht ever built,” Dickson says. “But it will still take us some time to get the best out of her.”

Assuming USA 87 prevails in the Louis Vuitton Cup, the 26-ton, reportedly $20 million–plus racing boat, an exotic aggregation of carbon fiber and lightweight alloys, could be the United States’ best hope for reclaiming sailing’s most coveted trophy, which has been held by foreign teams ever since Team New Zealand outdid Team Dennis Conner, sailing Young America, in May 1995. Alinghi defeated the Oracle team’s USA 76 in 2003 to win the Cup, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is spending tens of millions of dollars to bring it back to his Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco.

BMW, which worked with Ellison as a junior partner in the last Cup campaign, has increased its presence in this one, signing on as lead sponsor and channeling its technical resources into the development program that began shortly after the last America’s Cup concluded. According to Thomas Hahn, a BMW engineer assigned to work with Farr Yacht Design, the Annapolis firm that designed both USA 76 and USA 87, the most daunting challenge was the requirement that the prototype also be the final product. Some of the structural concepts, though sound in theory, never had been tested. “We had to do it right the first time,” Hahn says. “You can’t build half a hull and rip it apart like you do in the car industry. This was our one and only chance.”

BMW’s engineers, headed by Raymond Freymann in Germany, continue to work on the yacht, using BMW Formula One racing technology to push its performance envelope. As it does with its Formula One cars, BMW has outfitted USA 87 with hundreds of sensors. “We measure thousands of pieces of data,” says Hahn. “We see everything going on in the boat, including someone stepping hard on the deck. It lets us tune every component.”

Using these data, which are recorded by the same structural analysis software that BMW’s performance R&D department employs, the engineers made USA 87’s hull both stronger and lighter than USA 76’s. As one would expect, Hahn will not divulge any details about the hull’s construction, but he says the lighter hull allowed the designers to add weight to the keel bulb at the bottom of the boat, which in turn adds stability and speed to upwind runs. Some Cup pundits speculate that there is a double-winged keel beneath the waterline—something the team will keep shrouded until next year, probably just before the final Louis Vuitton Act (number 13, in April).

The keel fin, the slender 9-foot connection between the hull and the bulb, is the main point of pride for the BMW engineers. Manufactured at the company’s facility in Eisenach, Germany, it employs an ultrahigh-strength steel that BMW uses in its performance automobiles’ crash zones (the areas in a car that absorb most of the impact of a collision). The fin is only 4 to 6 inches wide but carries the 21-ton bulb, and it must contend with forces from the water and winds as well.

The Germans also have brought a fresh perspective to the design of the bulkhead, the internal walls that serve as the boat’s skeleton, which most racing yacht designers consider a secret weapon. Hahn says that the boat’s bulkhead structure is “completely different” from that of USA 76, although the two vessels look similar from the outside. “That allows us to make the boat stronger without adding weight,” he says.

USA 87 will be modified continuously during the Vuitton Acts, the Vuitton Cup, and even the America’s Cup itself. The engineers will compile millions of bytes of information on how the yacht responds to various wind and wave conditions, run thousands of velocity prediction programs, and test hundreds of sail shapes in the team’s wind tunnel in Valencia. Designers in Spain, Germany, and elsewhere will conduct daily briefings concerning the latest data. And in the end, all this effort is expected to achieve only a 3 percent to 4 percent improvement over the speed of USA 76, which in ideal conditions can achieve a top speed of about 15 knots, or 17 mph. This improvement in speed may seem modest, but it is enough to alter the outcome of a race.

Still, even engineer Hahn concedes that the best-designed boat must rely on the sailors who race it. “The crew on a Cup boat has a much stronger influence than the driver of a Formula One car,” Hahn says. “You can have one good driver, but 18 guys have to coordinate the sailing.” Gary Jobson, a Cup veteran and ESPN commentator, notes that in this year’s Cup races, more so than in past years’, sailing prowess will play a greater role than engineering ability. “The design parameters established by the latest Cup rules are so narrow that you’re down to small variations in shape, weight, and construction,” Jobson says. “At the end of the day, when you peel back the layers of technology, it’s still a sailboat race, and a lot of judgment calls will make the difference.”

A new America’s Cup yacht such as USA 87 can be a battleground where theory and practice—that is, designers and sailors—collide. “Designers don’t always have the best understanding of what we need to win a race,” says Eric Doyle, the strategist in the BMW Oracle afterguard, the four-member team that stands behind the cockpit and directs the sailing. “They may come up with something that looks great on paper but doesn’t work in the real world.”

Belying its appearance as a graceful sailing vessel, an America’s Cup yacht is in fact a tightly wound racing machine, its sails often pushed to their maximum potential, with winds producing the equivalent of 66 tons of pressure against mast and rigging. New designs can play out in unpredictable and sometimes dangerous ways. A severed forestay or mast can kill a man, and indeed, sailors have died in previous campaigns—including a Spanish sailor who was killed in 1990 when a block for turning the halyard broke and hit his head.

In addition to considering the forces of nature, designers also must provide sufficient work space for the crew, most of whom are positioned near the yacht’s mast. “It often comes down to adding 5 millimeters here and removing 5 millimeters elsewhere,” notes Britton Ward, a naval architect with Farr Yacht Design. In addition, because new rules have allowed for an 18th sailor on board, the designers have reduced working spaces in some instances—for example, by allotting 3 square feet rather than 3.5 square feet to grinder Craig Monk. His job is to trim and hoist the sails, a task that sometimes requires him to move his hands so quickly that they become a blur. “I have to be careful where I put my feet,” says Monk. “Of course, you have to watch the elbows.”

Unlike its predecessor, USA 87 has a bowsprit, a large spar projecting forward from the ship’s stern. “It saves weight and improves the efficiency of the mast and sail,” says Ward. “It also allows for a longer spinnaker pole.” In fact, the spinnaker can unfurl to 5,382 square feet. The additional sail area produces faster speeds, but it leaves less deck space at the front of the yacht for the bowman, who watches competing boats and fixes tangled buckles or lines. “It’s workable,” says strategist Doyle of the bowman’s situation. “He’ll have time to get his game up as we train on the new boat.” 

Workable seems to be the operative word when the question of performance vs. ergonomics arises between the designers and sailors. “It’s a race boat, not a cruising yacht,” says team navigator Peter Isler. “But we’re not prepared to sacrifice a significant part of our job for something that’s going to provide just a bit more speed.” Designer Ward is acutely aware of the sailors’ concerns. “We go out on the boat as much as possible,” he says. “We may want to narrow the hull, for instance, to gain performance. But it obviously won’t work if someone falls into the water. The sailors give us our reality checks.”

Indeed, the sailors and designers do appear to be pulling in the same direction. “We sit down with the sail designers as a team and discuss every detail,” says Jon Ziskind, a trimmer who spends hours each day aboard USA 87 adjusting the headsails to meet wind conditions. “We have different philosophies about the best sail shapes, but usually firm data lead us down the right path.”

However, as Dickson notes, the data do not always take precedence over the sailors’ experience and intuition. “We work hard to use the design technology to recalibrate our brains,” he says. “But we also use our perceptions as sailors to reeducate our design software.” 


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