In the absence of any personal sailing adventure stories due the lack of access to Hejira moored in France (it is nearly a year since I last clapped eyes on her) and with the America’s Cup action shaping up to be ‘a cracker’, I hope you will forgive me a little indulgence. To whet your appetite, here is a brief explanation of some of the history and an assessment of our (British) position in this, the pinnacle of sailing competition.
The America’s Cup was first contested in 1851 making it the oldest trophy in international sport.
In August, 1851, the yacht named America, representing the New York Yacht Club, beat the best the British could offer to win the Royal Yacht Squadron’s 100 Guinea Cup in a race around the Isle of Wight. The trophy would go to the United States and despite many expensive attempts, it would be well over 100 years before it was taken away from New York by the Australian yacht, ‘Australia II’ in 1983. The cup was named after the winner of the original race, the yacht America but legend has it that America did not complete the course correctly, missing out the final turning mark. The Royal Yacht Squadron, presumably out of a gentlemanly sense of fair play, conceded the race because America was so far in the lead – I doubt that would happen today! Queen Victoria asked at the time “Who came second” the famous answer being “Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second”.
In the 170 years since that first race, no British yacht has won the cup.
The America’s Cup has been so keenly fought over, it has often spilled over into acrimonious litigation with the ‘Deed of Gift’, which governs the cup, examined and interpreted in great detail in the law courts. This lead to the slightly cynical quote ‘Britain rules the waves, America waives the rules’.
Over the years, many notable people have been involved in the America’s Cup, either as a skipper of the yacht or as a source of funding for the craft. Notable people involved include J. Pierpont Morgan, Sir Thomas Lipton, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, Ted Turner, Alan Bond, Peter de Savary, Larry Ellison and now, billionaire businessman Jim Ratcliffe, who is the founder and CEO of Ineos who is funding the 2021 British challenger ‘Britannia’, skippered by Sir Ben Ainslie.
The holder of the cup which is currently the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron hosts the defense of the cup and must accept a challenge for the trophy who become known as the ‘Challenger of Record’ and in this case, it is the Italians. The cup holder and the ‘Challenger of Record’ decide the design parameters for the competition (giving them a head start) and where and when they will compete for the cup. The America’s cup is raced on a ‘match race’ basis which means that there are only two yachts sailing against each other in a series of races. Since 1970, there have been multiple yachts challenging for the right to race against the holder. This has necessitated a challenger series which is a ‘race off’ (in this case called the Prada Cup – the Challenger of Record’s privilege) between the challenging yachts to decide which has the right to race the defending yacht (NZ) for the ultimate prize.
There are 3 challengers for the 36th America’s Cup in 2021. Italy’s ‘Prada Pirelli’ team with ‘Luna Rossa’, the USA’s ‘American Magic’ team with ‘Patriot’ and the UK’s ‘Ineos Team UK’ with ‘Britannia’. The Prada Cup started on Friday 15th of January at 2am (UK time) and is covered on Sky Sports Mix. Decisive races will apparently be shown on the BBC and content can be found on the internet – I have included a link below. The final (winning challenger vs NZ) will be the first to win 7 races and runs from February 13th to February 22nd. This is the actual ‘America’s Cup’ itself.
The design specification for the America’s Cup usually represents the leading edge of yacht technology and for this, the 36th cup, the yachts are AC 75’s. They are 75 foot long foiling monohulls and they quite literally ‘fly’ above the water supported on foils. They are made of carbon fibre and are incredibly light having no ballast, the righting moment being generated by their geometry. They are capable of sailing at speeds of up to 40 knots (46 mph) upwind and exceed 50knots (57mph) downwind. They are quite simply spectacular!
Running a campaign is hugely expensive as, particularly when there is a fundamental rule change. It is then necessary to carry out extensive development and experiment with smaller scale ‘test beds’ to help guide the design process.
Usually, a full scale prototype is developed before fixing the design for the production of the final yacht that is to be campaigned in the series.
The British yacht ‘Britannia’ (known affectionately as Rita) was only launched in October and raced for the first time in the Christmas series, not winning a single race and coming an ignominious last. Anyone familiar with the statistics surrounding Sir Ben will know never to write him off and, with the backing and resources of Ineos who have a big tie up with Mercedes F1 and are utilising some of their expertise, will be looking for great improvements for the Prada Cup.
Sir Ben Ainslie declared that there were a lot of changes required and she has performed infinitely better recently. The New Zealand yacht had something of a fright when it capsized so it is not all plain sailing for the defenders.
It would appear (to me) that the big factor and difference between the yachts is the foil design. The teams have now had to select the foils they will use for their campaigns with no further development allowed. The Italian and British yachts appear to have opted for larger foils which will suit light winds but may be compromised in higher wind conditions. the New Zealanders have selected thin foils mounted further aft to be optimised for the stronger winds that are expected in the America’s Cup Final in March – the next time they actually race. The trade off is they may struggle to foil (lift and fly above the water) in lighter winds and the configuration is inherently less stable necessitating slicker teamwork. The Americans appear to have selected foils somewhere between the two extremes and it is interesting to note that it is only the New Zealand and American yachts that have capsized to date. So, it may all come down to the prevailing wind conditions for the Final, how well they sail their yachts and how they read the conditions and wind shifts.