America’s Cup 2017 in Bermuda sees world’s fastest foilers race in June

The latest America’s Cup boasts, capable of an astonishing 45 knots or 50+ mph, are being fine-tuned to compete in the 35th America’s Cup, scheduled 26 May to 27 June in Bermuda’s Great Sound. It promises to be the most extraordinary event in the auld mug’s 166 years of cloak-and-dagger history

May 07, 2017 | By Bruce Maxwell

Never before, say the organisers, have such incredibly high-tech, hydro-foiling speed machines been seen. They sail three times faster than the wind and are powered by wingsails that are more akin to aeroplane appendages or F1 car foils than to traditional sails.

Known as AC50s, they are 15m LOA, and replace the AC45Fs (for Foil) used for the lead-in 2015-2016 Louis Vuitton America’s Cup (LVAC) World Series, which saw closely-fought regattas in Portsmouth, Gothenburg, Bermuda, Oman, New York, Chicago, Portsmouth again, Toulon and finally Fukuoka last November.

In the interim, some of the six teams representing holders Oracle Team USA and challengers Emirates Team New Zealand, Land Rover BAR (Ben Ainslie Racing) of Britain, Artemis Racing from Sweden, Softbank Team Japan and Groupama Team France have built AC45S (for Surrogate) boats simply to test advanced gear and systems that may be installed on their AC50s.

Four-time Olympic sailing gold medallist Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR won the LVAC World Series by a whisker in Japan, making spectacular recoveries from sometimes last place position, and now they go into the LVAC Qualifiers starting 26 May with a two point advantage. Oracle Team USA came second and gets one point, as it also participates in the Qualifiers. Emirates Team New Zealand was third. These are the acknowledged “hottest contestants”.

Britain has never won the America’s Cup after losing it to the schooner America in the £100 Cup around the Isle of Wight in 1851, and a syndicate of wealthy British businessman are hoping that this will be their year, including Lord Irvine Laidlaw, who did much of his early yacht racing in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Another frequent but ultimately unsuccessful British challenger, tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton, who tried five times between 1899 and 1930, later donated the ornate Singapore Straits Regatta Trophy to then Royal Singapore Yacht Club. Royal changed to Republic on independence. The America’s Cup itself was created at venerable Garrards of London, which when owned by Prince Jefri of Brunei in 1995-2000 also crafted the Raja Muda Regatta Trophy, commissioned by the present day Sultan of Selangor, Tuangku idris Shah.

The round-robin LVAC Qualifiers from 26 May to 3 June are followed by LVAC Challenger Playoffs 4-12 June, involving the best four challengers in first-to-five sudden-death semi-finals and finals. The winner goes through to the 17-27 June America’s Cup proper, in a first-to-seven match series against the holder Oracle Team USA. If the winner of the Qualifiers has made it this far, that team starts with a one-race advantage over Oracle, says the America’s Cup website.

The scoring is complicated. One could argue that points gained by the LVAC World Series winner do not really matter much, as only the fifth challenger will drop out before the head-to-head semi-final LVAC Challenger Playoffs.

Also that the whole system seems designed to allow incumbent Oracle Team USA to get as much competitive practice as possible, plus possibly retaining its one point from the World Series. “Very unfair”, comments one prominent player whom Yacht Style consulted.

Rules and protocols are forever being quietly “adjusted” in America’s Cup events, however, and some suggest that this is how New York Yacht Club managed to hang onto the auld mug, bolted to a plinth in their august premises, for 132 years before Australia 11 came along with an equally contentious winged keel, which may have been co-designed by the Dutch. Skipper John Bertrand famously won that series with a last-gasp 4-3 victory over “Mr America’s Cup” Dennis Conner off Newport, Rhode Island, in 1983.

The lovely classic J-Class yachts and 12 Metres of yesteryear were gradually replaced by faster and more extreme sailboats. The America’s Cup moved from Perth to San Diego to Auckland to Valencia in Spain during which Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli crewed and won twice with his Alinghis. But then he lost to Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison in 2010 in the first America’s Cup match sailed, after much litigation, by two competing catamarans. It was said that Ellison’s USA was more technically advanced than Bertarelli’s Alinghi 5.

New Zealand yachtsman Sir Russell Coutts and the late Sir Peter Blake masterminded the Kiwi win in San Diego and first defence in Auckland. Then Coutts surprisingly switched to Bertarelli’s camp. New Zealand lost 5-0 and the America’s Cup made its way to Europe for the first time. Next Coutts was hired by Ellison’s BMW Oracle Racing, which out-manoeuvred Bertarelli, and went on to triumph in San Francisco in 2013. Sir Russell is now CEO of the 35th America’s Cup Event Authority (ACEA), organiser of the upcoming matches in Bermuda, in which Oracle Team USA is defending the America’s Cup.

Nobody suggests that he doesn’t keep an even keel, but this recent history still gives an interesting insight into the high-stakes machinations and sheer skulduggery that have surrounded the America’s Cup since its inception. Many a pot-boiler has been written about the event.

Coutts was at first decried as a traitor to his native New Zealand. Now he is regarded as a “qualified” hero of the professional sailing circuit, in which many of his countrymen, boat builders and marine accessory makers continue to excel. Albeit this time around, for example, the accomplished Kiwis have again been disadvantaged by administrators in various ways, and Coutts’ snail-pace arbitration system has raised eyebrows.

How Emirates Team New Zealand managed to lose the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco is still the subject of intense conjecture. Using ultra high-tech AC72 foiling catamarans, and skippered as usual by Dean Barker, the Kiwis sailed to a commanding 8-1 lead in the first-to-nine series. Incredibly they then lost eight straight matches to a remarkably resurgent Oracle Team USA skippered by Australian Jimmy Spithill.

Ultra-experienced American John Kostecki, who has six ACs on his resumé, was replaced as tactician aboard Oracle by Briton Sir Ben Ainslie, now a leading challenger. Urgent modifications miraculously improved the defender’s foiling speeds, making her somehow superior to Emirates Team New Zealand. But they still could have lost. In one variable light airs race, the Kiwis were way ahead, but agonisingly missed the cut-off to cross the finishing line, and take the America’s Cup, by a few minutes.

Americans aboard the narrowly-winning USA boat in San Francisco were in fact few and far between. Apart from Aussie skipper Spithill, the key afterguard was made up of another Aussie, Tom Slingsby, and Briton Sir Ben.

Of the 24 Oracle Team USA sailing crew members, seven were from Australia, eight from New Zealand, two from America, two from Holland, one each from Britain, Canada, Italy and France, and there was an Italian-born Antiguan. Besides Kostecki, the only other American aboard was Rome Kirby, a trimmer and grinder. Plus IT billionaire Larry Ellison, the team’s owner and financier.

Emirates Team New Zealand was a more budget-conscious 15-strong, made up of 13 New Zealanders and two Australians. Funnily enough, their skipper Dean Barker and Oracle’s Jimmy Spithill had palatial homes in the same Herne Bay suburb of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city…in the very same street. Maybe they called into each other’s places for a quick breakfast while walking the dogs. Such cosy company is a far cry from the America’s Cups of

yesteryear, when crew, boats and their equipment, initially including sails, had to be strictly from the challenging or defending country. The terms of the event’s original Deed of Gift and Protocols have been gradually altered by wave after wave of high-profile lawyers.

Oracle Team USA’s dramatic increase in upwind foiling speed in San Francisco was probably achieved in consultation with Core Builders Composites, which built the foils and other key components for both finalists. This company was formerly called Oracle Racing, and is located at Warkworth, opposite historic Kawau Island north of Auckland.

What will the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda be like? The Atlantic island is arguably more accessible than remote Perth or Auckland for the Europeans and Americans, but this oldest surviving British Overseas Territory still seems an oddball choice of venue for an American defender. Assorted cities vie for hosting rights nowadays. Bermuda’s bid was probably circa US$30 million in cash, and US$30 million in kind. The venue remains very expensive for the teams, which do not reap such benefits.

It is located 1,000 kms due east of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. Thus it is much closer to the US than to Europe and Africa, and it forms an apex of the famous Bermuda Triangle, with San Juan in Puerto Rico and Miami as the base. The Bahamas are inside the boundary line. This is where ships and planes have mysteriously disappeared for decades. Perhaps a perfect theatrical setting, then, for an America’s Cup.

The island group’s motto, also appropriate, is Quo Fata Ferunt, Latin for Wither The Fates Carry Us. It almost sends anticipatory shivers up the spine.

On a more mundane note, Bermuda is also known for cotton twill Bermuda shorts, pink sand beaches, Gosling’s rum, and for its resort hotels that adorn largest of the 181 islands. Many of these facilities have been struggling as tourism declined in the wake of the 2008 GFC. It is a two hour flight from US East Coast cities, or arriving from Europe, British Airways is the best bet.

Bermuda’s financial sector tries to keep a lower profile, but it has long been regarded as one of the world’s top ten tax havens, an appellation that it is currently disputing by signing on to attempts to better regulate multinationals. Wealth management, insurance and reinsurance are among other highly regarded international activities. Bermuda’s Butterfield Bank is an America’s Cup sponsor, and HSBC Bermuda is quite active too.

The uninhabited islands were originally discovered by the Spanish, only a decade after Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” to the Caribbean. They were settled by the English, however, in 1612, and former capital St George is a world heritage site. Hamilton has been the capital since 1815.

Originally a British colony after the 1707 unification of the parliaments of Scotland and England, it later became a British Independent Overseas Territory with a high degree of autonomy. Bermuda has its own elected government, largest parties being the One Bermuda Alliance and Progressive Labour, and it uses the Bermudan dollar, which is pegged to the US dollar. Britain continues to handle defence, security and foreign relations.

Its 65,000 residents are primarily a mixture of British, American, West Indian and Portuguese African stock from the further east Azores. The subtropical islands form the caldera of a submarine volcano, and are a comparatively tiny 21 sq m or 54 sq km, although uncanny bright blue mid-Atlantic waters lap upon a more extensive 75 m or 120 kms of coastline. Main Island, the largest, is often called Bermuda. The principal eight islands are connected by bridges.

Apart from visiting beaches of finely crushed coral and snorkelling and scuba diving, other attractions include the Royal Naval Dockyard and Bermuda Maritime Museum, the Underwater Exploration Institute, Masterworks Museum of Bermudan Art, spectacular lighthouses and the fascinating Crystal Caves, with their stalactites and underground saltwater pools. No rental cars are allowed, so taxis, buses, scooters, bicycles and ferries are used for transport.

Early attempts at agriculture faltered due to unsuitable alkaline soil, and tobacco crops were so surpassed by output of the British colony Virginia in the New World that Bermudan cedar boxes used for transporting tobacco were said to be worth more than their contents.

The slave trade and piracy, politely called privateering, were no strangers to Bermudan shores either, and the maritime economy was further boosted by the export of salt, a mainstay for more than a century, as was whaling. Modern-day yachties have heard of “Bermudan-rigged” sailboats, and indeed the nippy little Bermuda sloop was adapted for service by the Royal Navy. One of these, HMS Pickle, is reported to have carried despatches of the British victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Cape Trafalgar near Gibraltar in 1805, and of the death of its commander, Admiral Lord Nelson.

Quite how this British tradition will manifest itself in the 35th America’s Cup come May and June 2017 remains to be seen. Bermuda is at 32°N. The islands are warmed by the nearby Gulf Stream, and are in the hurricane belt, although this is not the season. In October last year, Hurricane Nicole made a direct hit. Generally, in the early summer, temperatures are about 22-26°C, the humidity is rising, and average winds are a fairly mild 12-13 knots, gusting higher at times.

The contestants will of course optimise for however they see the conditions, keeping their preparations carefully under wraps, and will not make the same mistake as the Kiwis in San Francisco, when competitors realised that their foiling ability was inferior, just in time to catch up.

“This is the heart of the America’s Cup”, say the organisers. “Teams designing and building their own boats within a set of rules that presents scope for individual design genius, but which creates a relatively level playing field that maximises the competition between them.

“One major difference between the AC50s and AC45s, apart from the AC50s carrying one extra crew, is how they are powered. Both boats need grinders aboard. For the uninitiated, grinders provide the muscle. They are supremely powerful athletes capable of sustained bursts of energy that is used to operate sails of lift daggerboards.

“Well, that is until the AC50s came along. Now a grinder’s role is to build up hydraulic reserves that are used by the skipper and afterguard to operate the primary systems. In short, the grinders are the engines. Their ability to generate power will directly influence boat speed, and boat speed gives the tacticians what they crave, the power to make decisions and act on them faster and more effectively that the competition.

“This change in how race boats are operated is monumental. It
is helping to increase the speed of boats exponentially, hand in hand with a vastly more intelligent understanding of hydro dynamics and the optimal use of foils, boat aero dynamics and a whole related world of science that is translated into pure sporting heaven for the fans.

“The boats are going to be spectacular. The racing will be awesome. The athletes will be supreme, and the eyes of the world will be watching. Now comes the era of the AC50 boat, and fast may its reign be”.

Jimmy Spithill is again skipper of the defenders, Oracle Team USA, reprising his 34th AC role in San Francisco, but long-serving Dean Barker has moved to Softbank Team Japan, making way for Glenn Ashby to take over at ultra-strong contender Emirates Team New Zealand.

Sir Ben Ainslie, having helped Oracle Team USA win in 2013 is now, in another of the endless twists and turns that exemplify America’s Cup racing, a leading challenger as skipper of the British Land Rover BAR Team.

Australian Olympic gold medallist Nathan Outteridge is skippering the well-sailed blue and yellow Swedish challenger Artemis Racing, and he has another medallist, Briton Iain Percy, in the afterguard. Last but hopefully not least is Franck Cammas skippering Groupama Team France, the first French challenger of the multihull era, a form in which the French have excelled.

Only America, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland have ever won the America’s Cup. More than US$100 m is needed for a successful campaign. Looking ahead, five of the six teams have agreed a new protocol to hold the 36th and 37th America’s Cups only two years apart in 2019 and 2021. The cost of the 36th AC is hopefully put by Land Rover BAR at US$30-40 m per team, but experienced campaigners say the outlay will be more like US$60.

This year looks like Britain’s best chance for a long time. As the AC50s started hitting the water in January and February, when this preview was written, developments aplenty doubtless lie ahead. Dark deeds may still be afoot, along with the exhilaration of being aboard or watching, in Bermuda or on TV, the world’s fastest sailboats in another fascinating contest. For the very latest news, check out the websites below.

The Red Bull Youth America’s Cup is scheduled 12-21 June in AC45s. This involves up to 16 teams of 19-24 year old sailors, from whose ranks it is hoped the next generation of America’s Cup contestants will emerge.

An America’s Cup J-Class Regatta takes place 16-20 June. Only 10 J-Class yachts were ever built, and two of them, Shamrock V and Endeavour, raced in the America’s Cups of 1930 and 1934. It is hoped seven Js, including Shamrock V, will compete this year.

The America’s Cup Superyacht Regatta for super sailboats has been set down for 13-15 June. It was not clear at our deadline how many qualifying vessels would turn up in Bermuda. Adela won the last event in San Francisco.

The famous 635 nm Newport-Bermuda Race, akin to the China
Sea Race and the Sydney-Hobart, is biennial, and does not take place in 2017. Last year the first Chinese entry was the chartered J44 Spirit of Noahs skippered by Dong Qing. This Shanghai-based group has become active at many such events.

Charters and Superyachts

Options that have crossed Yacht Style’s desk recently include the 58m or 190’ Illusion V and the 47m or 154’ Rhino. Contact Camper & Nicholsons. Both are available from the LVAC Challenger Playoffs onwards.

Yacht Charter Fleet suggests the 28m CNB cutter Savarona, not to be confused with the 136m vessel of the same name in the Bosphorus, and the 33 m or 108’ Marae built by New Zealand’s Alloy Yachts, which is asking US$59,000 a week plus expenses.

Or there is the 46m Palmer Johnson Pioneer which was at the Antigua Charter Show in December but is apparently voyaging to Bermuda. This vessel had an extensive refit in 2015 and is listed at US$120,000 a week. Contact Y.CO.

Other substantial agents such as Burgess, Fraser, Northrop and Johnson, Edmiston, Ocean Independence, Yachtzoo and others can be tried. Obviously offerings may be limited by the relatively remote Atlantic location of Bermuda, and for that reason available vessels could be quickly booked.

Checking out Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, one of the world’s oldest royal clubs, is recommended too. Larger yachts visiting can contact a variety of marinas and wharves for suitable berths.

This articles was first published in Yacht Style.

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