Flying-Boats

The America’s Cup becomes a high-tech, high-speed thrill ride.

This summer, even if you’ve never set foot on a boat, chances are you’ll be watching the Lexus-sponsored America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay, and not just because it’s the first time this Super Bowl of pro sailing will be live-streamed across social media.

No, you’ll be tuning in because, as with watching other extreme sporting events—the X Games, big-wave surfing competitions—it will be just plain difficult to look away.

Wait, a second, though. Let’s back up. Extreme sports? Since when has sailboat racing been an extreme sport? Well, ever since the 2013 America’s Cup boats adopted technology that allows the boats to fly above the water at speeds approaching 50 miles an hour; in fact, sailors are now required to wear helmets and padding like hockey players and race-car drivers.

“Before, this kind of sailing speed was only seen with the specialized world speed record boats—asymmetrical boats that could only go one way for a short distance at a particular angle to the wind with a strong 25 knots or more of wind,” explains Bruce Farr, one of pro sailing’s most legendary yacht designers. “That’s all changed.”

This summer, the three remaining challenger teams (those competing for a chance to race the America’s Cup)—Artemis Racing, Emirates Team New Zealand, and Luna Rossa Challenge—as well as the defending Oracle Team USA, essentially threw out conventional thinking when it comes to sailboat design.

For starters, this year’s boats don’t carry a mainsail in the traditional sense—the mainsails aren’t made from a soft material that billows in the wind. Instead, designers replaced the most important sail with a rigid vertical wing that towers 13 stories high and can withstand extreme wind pressures to generate unprecedented America’s Cup sailing speeds.

Hudson with Kids

These giant wings are combined with catamaran hulls that rise completely above the water when flying downwind, sitting only on thin, dagger-like hydrofoils that slice through the waves with minimum drag. The hydrofoils are made from engineered carbon fiber, the same super-light, super-tough material Lexus used for the LFA supercar’s body shell.

Racing with these foil configurations is like pushing a Formula One car, says Martin Fischer, who was the first to develop foils for an international catamaran sailing class. The harder you push the boat, the more it rises up and “flies,” which is why, from a distance, the boats look like they’re skimming through the air.

Behind all this aerodynamic efficiency, of course, is some serious brainpower, which comes from people like Steve Collie, a member of Emirates Team New Zealand, and its aero engineer.

Collie uses what’s called computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a math- and software-based approach to analyzing air and water flow that’s vital to designing fast-moving, aerodynamic objects (Formula One teams use CFD-based solutions to improve a car’s aerodynamic efficiency; CFD development also contributes to high-performance soccer, rugby, football, and tennis ball design, as well as Tour de France-worthy bicycles).

“We now run hundreds of computations for each boat design,” he explains. “We look at variations of wing trim, sail trim, and boat orientation as well as variations in the wind speed and direction. The best thing about CFD, though, is seeing what we’ve developed on the computer being built and then sailed. The speed at which something goes from being an idea or a shape on a computer to being tested on the yacht is phenomenal. It’s addictive.”

Which brings us back to you, the spectator. In keeping with the revolutionary, and extreme, nature of this America’s Cup, this year’s race will be the first digital America’s Cup in history. The AC72-class boats will carry onboard cameras, surround sound audio pickups, and crew microphones, all of which will contribute to live YouTube feeds, as well as live Facebook and Twitter coverage.

Challenger races, also known as the Louis Vuitton Cup, run from July 4 to September 1, and the America’s Cup itself kicks off on September 7.

Photos: America’ Cup Event Authority