America’s Cup Defense, 2013


The epitome of “if you have to ask you can’t afford it,” owning and sailing a large boat has been compared to standing naked under a cold shower tearing up $100 bills. America’s Cup racers take this one step further ($1,000 bills and a fire hose) by being good for absolutely nothing else, these days they aren’t even yar, they are built to a rule which makes them as suitable for cruising or day sailing as an F1 car is for commuting.

But ever since the NY Yacht Club brought home the cup in 1851 having challenged all comers in the British Isles with a traditional North American style fishing schooner, some individual such as Commodore Vanderbilt (who had my boat built in the 1920’s) or Oracle’s C.E.O. Larry Ellison or a consortium have put together these racing yachts to challenge or defend The Cup.

In the early days these boats were the most beautiful private yachts afloat. Today many older sailors consider the new crop ugly at best.

Strict rules are incredibly important in most racing, even in the good old days of yacht racing.

One reason the older boats were so graceful was the length rule. For example, a boat’s speed is largely determined by the length of the hull in the water, it has to do with hydrodynamics and the standing wave created by a displacement hull. The maximum speed which it is easy to reach is a small number times the square root of the lwl or load water line. The small multiplier being related to how hydrodynamic the hull shape is.

If you look at the 1930 Enterprise you will see that a lot of the boat is out of the water when it is sitting still. I’ll use my boat as an example because I am familiar with the exact numbers and Enterprise was just a larger version.

a photo of the Enterprise before masting

My boat was 80 ft long on deck, 13 ft at the widest point on deck, and only 53 ft LWL or the length of the hull which was wet when sitting at the dock. She was built to a rule which penalized boats for having a longer LWL. But since sailboats lean over in most sailing conditions (except running before the wind), more and more of the boat was in the water as she heeled, making her faster and faster. She and Enterprise (pictured above) could heel 33 degrees before water came over the deck.

The modern boats are catamarans and much faster because they ride up out of the water on foils and can hit speeds of 50 m.p.h..

Yacht racing is like NASCAR racing in the sense that anyone could build a faster vehicle for a lot less, but, and here is the critical point, NOT within the rules.

NASCAR rules specify things such as not allowing fuel gauges or having a special tire or fuel.

Car race enthusiasts can even enjoy watching these boats because there was a recent famous race between a car and a sailboat.

Top Gear episode 1 season 20 featured yet another “vs” race, this time a Toyota Corolla rental vs the America’s Cup boat in New Zealand. Sailing fans should catch the rerun of this episode as should wives trying to talk a husband out of sailing – it shows how miserably hard ocean sailing can be.

Rules in yacht racing specify things such as where you can put ballast, how tall the mast is, what sails you can use, etc.

The rules change every year and the old rules resulted in elegant boats and billowing sails. By this year the rules have changed so much that they sail catamarans, the hull shape hardly matters because they raise up out of water on foils and they don’t even have a mainsail, they use a vertical wing.

But sailing is still sailing; the wing must be adjusted just right, the direction of the wind and current are critical, and it is still a cold, wet, hard job which is fun even for these guys.

Any true sailor will probably agree with Ratty’s statement to Mr. Toad:

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” “The Wind in the Willows”

In fact, a sailor will cheerfully put up with almost anything except lack of wind.

One year our annual new years day fun race in Boston Harbor was limited to one boat because of icing. The consumption of rum went up but we had several skippers so we raced timed laps against each other.

I think I intimated earlier that serious sailors are all crazy.

So, how did this year’s America’s Cup lineup look?

The U.S. entry from Oracle –

Lets face it, they looked like a bunch of amateurs in the first few races.

On top of that they cheated in the preliminary trials and began the first race two races in the hole because they were caught.

The N.Z. team looked like they had been racing together for years and for the first few races it looked like there would be no real contest.

One race Oracle was so far behind that it reminded me nothing so much as the reply to Queen Victoria’s question about the other boats on seeing America cross the finish line first. The Commodore of the Royal Yacht Club’s answer was, of course, “Madam, there is no second.”

That first race in 1851 was actually a race between British yachts for the Queen’s cup. America took on all challengers in this race and won by such a humiliating margin that the cup was renamed America’s Cup, in reference to the yacht, not any particular country.

This year in San Francisco Bay race numbeer 8 saw the New Zealand boat experience a mechanical/hydraulic or grinder failure and at 44.8 degrees of heel came within a few degrees of capsizing. U.S.A. won that race.

On Saturday race 9 was abandoned due to the wind kicking up just slightly too strong for the race rules. N.Z. was ahead.

Run the following day (Sept 15), race 9 was won handily by the U.S. boat and crew which had changed tactics upwind by getting one of the two hulls up out of the water ASAP as opposed to the earliest races (which Oracle usually lost going upwind) when both hulls were wet much longer, keeping the boat from accelerating as well as it could have. The tide was also going out so the current was going with the boat into the wind.

Race 10 was delayed by wind but only a few minutes and N.Z. again won handily after a few very close legs. There were many exciting “crossings” with the two boats coming within a few yards of each other at a 60 m.p.h. closing speed.

At the end of the second Sunday race, Oracle had won 3 races but, because of the cheating penalty, only has 1 point.

N.Z. has won a total of 7 wins and therefore 7 points.

The boat first to 9 points wins. So New Zealand could win the series in two more races.

Monday is an off day for rest and repairs so the next race day is Tuesday but high winds are forecast. Wednesday is also a scheduled race day.

Historical Note

Among other things, I have lived on and sailed large boats, including one which was copied in larger scale as Enterprise, the 1930 Cup defender.

In that line I recently found an online copy of Vanderbilt’s own book about the famous 1930 defense of The Cup.

Anyone interested at all in the races should read this book – he discusses everything from design of the boat to tactics and crew selection – a fascinating read online or downloaded to Kindle or other ebook readers.