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This America's Cup is New Zealand's cup


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This America’s Cup is New Zealand’s cup.

If you have not yet caught on to the idea that New Zealand is where technology comes from, check out the America’s Cup on Sunday morning. You will see the world's most advanced sailing yachts. They were built in New Zealand.

Traditionally this is by far the world’s most expensive yacht race. In the mid twentieth century the cup gathered dust, bolted to a shelf in the New York Yacht Club, for more than twenty years. No-one could afford to mount a challenge. Before the war, the cup represented the pinnacle of sailing technology. The world’s wealthiest yachties enlisted the world’s biggest egos to sail the world’s most advanced sailboats. America’s Cup raceboats embodied the most advanced structural design and materials along with ground-breaking rig and sail design. Luddites grumbled that the rules were stacked against the challengers. They sometimes had a point: Challengers had to be built entirely in their home country, which put everyone at a serious disadvantage. No-one could match American technology. Other rules made it worse. For example, some early challengers were required to sail to New York “on their own hulls”. British challengers had to be strong enough to cross the Atlantic, whereas defenders only had to be strong enough to cope with sheltered-water, light-weather sailing conditions.

America’s cup regattas were rare events until 1930, when the first of three duels between Britain and the USA established the legend of the J-Boats. Like previous America's Cup boats, the J-boats embodied the very best technology and the most advanced design concepts. When I was sailing P class in the 1960s the J-Boats had reached near-mythical status.

I was two years old, and not quite co-ordinated enough to sail a P-Class, when the next challenger failed to wrest the America’s Cup from the New York Yacht Club. That was in 1958, 21 years after the previous challenge and more than a hundred years after the American schooner America won the very first race for the Auld Mug. Some people said the cup was named after that 19th-century schooner. But by the 1960s it was rumoured that the New York Yacht Club had bolted it to a shelf in their clubhouse and vowed never to undo that bolt.

The 1958 cup regatta was sailed in 12-metre class yachts, built under a rule first developed before World War I. In 1958 these boats were getting rather long in the tooth. By 1967, when an Australian millionaire was tuning up a new 12-metre called “Dame Pattie”, 12-metres were positively obsolete. By that time, catamaran sailors in Wellington were screaming around the harbour in massive clouds of spray kicked up by heavily-built Shearwater catamarans. Offshore sailors were scorching through Cook Strait at twenty knots on plywood boats we called “Spencer-boxes” (after the designer, John Spencer).

America’s Cup boats were great big fat blobs of lead. These enormous castings were slung beneath plesiosaur-shaped hulls just deep enough to stay afloat. The bit above the water accounted for a tiny fraction of the boat’s total weight.

Still, no-one could touch American technology. Before the ‘67 challenge the Aussies talked up a storm over Dame Pattie. We had movie nights at the yacht club and posters and huge adds for Aussie-made KAdron sailcloth that was gonna make American Dacron sails look like soggy wet t-shirts.

Dame Pattie was a lemon. She hobby-horsed in light sloppy conditions. Her sails were rubbish. Immediately after the regatta, all those posters and ads about KAdron sailcloth vanished. Gone. The Aussies pretended they'd never heard of KAdron cloth. The Macquarie dictionary (“Australia’s National Dictionary”) goes straight from Kadina (an Australian town) to Kaduna (A Nigerian city). Google “KAdron” and you find aftermarket parts for VW Beetle engines.

Yachties around New Zealand (and, I suspect, all over the world) often said in the late twentieth century that the America’s Cup was all about spending a shipload of money to go slow. You took a great enormous blob of lead and then spent millions fine-tuning the hydrodynamics of your plesiosaur and the aerodynamics of its vast baggy sails. It was all about making one plesiosaur go NOT QUITE as slowly as all the others.

And then along came the Kiwis. At first, Kiwi America’s Cup boats were just like all the others. We made great big lead castings and then spent millions designing hulls and rigs that we hoped would be less slow than all the others. But even in the beginning, New Zealand boats were different, which is why we were accused of cheating. The Americans had tried and failed to build a composite plastic plesiosaur that satisfied all the rules. How could New Zealand boat-builders succeed where the Americans failed? They didn’t understand, then, what we already knew. Our boatbuilders were better than theirs.

The Luddites in the late twentieth century replaced the 12-metre yachts with International America’s Cup Class yachts. These consisted of long planks sticking out of the top of very large, streamlined, blobs of lead. Instead of a plesiosaur, they put the bottom half of a dead shark on top of the plank. It was all about going NOT QUITE as slowly as the other boat. Only now you could watch it on tellie, with lines on the screen and lead-mine sailors going on about the latest court battle. (If you want to quickly find lots of lawyers, find an expensive yacht club and go into the bar on a race-day.)

It wasn’t until 2010 that an America’s Cup featured two boats without lead. But the 2010 boats were conventional multihulls. They were big, and they were fast. BMW Oracle had an enormous wing-sail, which was very much like a bigger version of the wing-sails used on C-Class catamarans since the 1970s. They reminded me of European GrandPrix multihulls. Hardly cutting-edge.

AC72 Aotearoa on San Francisco BayBut now, after 76 years of conservatism, we are about to see an America’s Cup regatta featuring real, honest to goodness high-tech sailboats. The AC72s are not the first successful round-the-buoys hydrofoils, but they are certainly the first successful big ones. Team New Zealand’s Aotearoa has been nudging fifty knots, not far short of l’Hydroptère’s world sailing speed record of 52.86 knots. l’Hydroptère is a pure straight-line speed machine, not a round-the-buoys racer.

The cool thing is that both the challenger and the defender were built in New Zealand. America’s Cup honchos wanted to exploit Kiwi boat-building technology, so they trimmed down the country of origin rule: Only the hulls must be built in the home country. The hulls are the easy bits. The critical parts of any yacht are the foils (rudders, daggerboards, etc.), rig, and sails. Oracle’s critical technology came from Core Builders Composites in Warkworth. Team New Zealand’s boats are, of course, all Kiwi.

You’d think Kiwi yachties would be raving about the AC72. They are not. Luddite lead-mine sailors hope Team New Zealand will win because they think Grant Dalton will ditch the AC72 and America’s Cup regattas will feature great big lead castings, just like they always have. They might be right. Dalton has been moaning about the cost, even though this America’s Cup has attracted more boats and featured more racing than any previous contest. Wannabe challengers have spent the last two years racing AC45 catamarans. In the last two years, four teams have built, between them, six AC72 race-boats. Just for ONE regatta. Only ten new J-Class boats were built over a period of ten years, for THREE America’s Cup regattas. Right now, the world is staggering in and out of a recession that is at least as bad as any twentieth-century recession. And yet the AC72 is far more successful than the legendary J-Class.

Yes, the AC72 is expensive. That is how it should be. It is the pinnacle of yachting achievement. And we should not forget that future yacht designers will benefit from experience. The cost of developing an AC72 will fall as sailing teams get more practice. The point is, though, that the AC72 is far more accessible than its spiritual predecessor, the J-Class. That is because of economic growth, which is what this blog, and Technology Valley, are all about.

The reality is that the AC72 is proving lead-mine enthusiasts wrong. That’s why they don’t like it. It’s not too expensive. It is no more dangerous than any other day-racing yacht. The tragedy that struck the Artemis team could have happened anywhere, anytime. I remember in the 1960s hearing about a dinghy sailor who died the same way: Leg tangled in the rigging of a capsized boat. A Cherub if I remember correctly. Young sailors all over the world start out in dinghies. We do everything we can to maximise safety, and yachting is one of the safest sports on the planet, but accidents can and do happen.

I don’t particularly care who wins the 2013 America’s Cup regatta. Either way, something special is unfolding in San Francisco. If the yachting world embraces the AC72, the cup will reclaim its status as the pinnacle of achievement for sailors, designers, engineers, boatbuilders, and everyone else who gets involved. If, instead, America’s Cup contenders go back to very big lumps of lead, a new legend will grow around the fabulous AC72 hydrofoils. Forty years from now, yachties will form charitable trusts to restore these icons of a bygone age, when yachts cruised sedately at only 50 knots and yachties dressed in stylish, well-tailored suits and jaunty helmets, and spoke a more refined and genteel form of Unglush.

Whatever happens Team New Zealand and Oracle Racing are building a legend that will outgrow both of them. While they are at it, they are showcasing the best boat-builders in the world: Who happen to be Kiwis.


Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Technologist who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your communication requirements: hello {a}

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