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An American-style number 8 whipping


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An American-style number 8 whipping

I’ve heard a lot of stories over the past couple of weeks about why Emirates Team NZ suddenly couldn’t beat Oracle Team USA on the water.

The best clue come direct from Team NZ. Grant Dalton was quoted as saying Oracle, during the regatta, increased their upwind boat-speed by about 90 seconds. Whatever they did, they did in less than about 40 hours, which was about the longest gap between the finish of one race and the start of the next.

This is pitstop engineering. It’s what racing engineers do to get a saloon car ready to race. They have only a few days to make their car the best they can make it: For the track they have to race it on. Every track is different, and race-tracks change from year to year, so race preparation demands on-the-spot engineering decisions.

Both America’s Cup teams were modifying their boats every day. Just like motor-racing teams, they had to make quick decisions and then modify the boat immediately. Of course they’d sit down at their computers and crunch the numbers. But when you get right down to it, pitstop engineering is about two things: seat of the pants decision-making;. and number eight wire engineering.

You have to understand your machine well enough to tweak its performance without going to all the trouble of a full-blown computer simulation. You have to know your numbers so well you can see the stresses and drag buckets and lift coefficients and attack angles in your mind’s eye. That’s seat of the pants engineering.

You have to work with what you’ve got. It took months to build the boat. You can't rip it apart and rebuild it. But you can make small parts overnight. And you can cut things off and put them back in different places, or change the way they interact with other bits. If a foil’s attack angle is too small you can chop a piece off the end of it. If you hear a rumour that the opposition has added some new feature to their boat, you must decide immediately if it’s worth copying what they’ve done. That’s number eight wire engineering.

Ultimately, Jimmy Spithill out-sailed Dean Barker. But he had no show of doing that with the boat he had in the first race. By about September 20, though, it was pretty clear Oracle’s pit crew had transformed the boat. It was like watching a NASCAR saloon-car race on TV, with good ol’ American boys talking about how the car was pushing (understeering) when they took it off the trailer, but they worked all night to make it just the right amount of loose. Only Jimmy’s pit-crew were playing with angles of attack and lift coefficients.

Ultimately, their number eight wire, seat-of-the-pants engineering was too good for Emirates Team New Zealand.


Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Technologist who loves writing about cool new technology. He visitied Oracle's Warkworth boatyard in March 2012. Email him to discuss your communication requirements: hello {a}


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