Not only do I love the America’s Cup, and have since the 1950s, I’m also enthralled by the foiling AC75s. I love the synergy of the flight/float paradigm. Yes, sailboats need keels and, yes, sailboats need sails—but, no, sailing race boats don’t need displacement hulls, and the AC75s prove it. For me, this is the Kiwi-kissed future. Of course, I realize that certain cavemen dragging around their wooden, full-keel, gaff-rigged, monomaran dug-outs will disagree—but that’s how progress is made, by ignoring the Neanderthals.
Here’s the coolest part: I never, ever thought I’d see a yacht race with lovely, graceful monohulls sailing at four to five times the speed of the wind! Or that I would be watching an AC race where, when the speed of the vessel I was rooting for fell to 45 knots, I screamed, “What’s wrong?”
Oh, sure, I loved the days of yore—so I went back and watched two 12-meters during their pre-start dial up. I’d be happy to tell you how it came out—but I fell asleep.
Frankly, I thought they were aground.
And let’s be honest, there’s no going back. The next generation of speed-crazed sailors won’t put up with sea slugs sailing around the racecourse as fast as sandbars silt in.
Please don’t misunderstand—I’ve raced on wooden 12-meters dozens of times in international competitions. On Heritage, I especially enjoyed being whipped by its 5/8” galvy spin sheets—talk about stone-age! Those sheets alone probably weighed as much as Te Rehutai! (Well, not quite) And, yes, I’ve felt the power of the IACC design under my feet—so much better than the 12’s but still more of the same, really.
Next, I dug the speed of the foiling cats in Bermuda but I missed the element of match racing and the cat-and-mouse of the starting box. And, frankly, I’m not interested in any vessel that has to be labeled ‘this side up’ at the factory.
Suddenly, in these AC75s, we have the best of both worlds—speed AND match racing.
I found the ‘rediscovery’ of match racing on AC75s extremely interesting. No one was sure what to expect but once the teams realized how effectively these boats could cover each other, they were thrilled. And they immediately adopted the standard techniques of yore—many of which almost but not quite worked.
During the ten actual AC’s races in 2021, the match racing learning curve was steep—especially in thin sea breezes where the AC75s left disturbed air over 1,000 feet behind them.
Do I miss the sail changes and spinnaker hoists of the old lead-mines? Kinda—the sadist in me does. But all those horrible floppy multicolored sails have bedeviled me my entire life—and I get a kick out of thinking about them being tossed in the dumpster like the wire stays of a bi-plane.
Of course, I should be more PC. There are probably nostalgic Formula 1 drivers who’d prefer to, say, get back to the good ole days of racing mules.
Yes, I was happy New Zealand won 7 to 3—and not just because I knew half the vessels in the spectator fleet from when I spent five seasons cruising in the Land of the Long White Cloud—but because the Kiwis, a tiny nation of sheep farmers, brought a superior machine to the America’s Cup competition by ingenuity and hard work, not simply by rubbing it with money.
Of course, Team Italy aboard Luna Rossa won three out of the first six races of the America’s Cup. Their boat was equally fast initially. But what counts in the AC is who wins the last race, not the first. They sailed wonderfully and were true gentlemen—but in the America’s Cup, the fastest boat traditionally wins.
This year, thankfully, was no exception: the fastest boat won.
The UK were eliminated early. Sir Ben, who won four consecutive Gold Medals in the Olympics, knows how to sail, sure, but assembling a team that builds a better weapon is a totally different task. Yes, Sir Ben is driven—whether he can inspire that hunger in others is still an open question.
As for American Magic and the New York Yacht Club; they 1.) brought a knife to a gunfight and 2.) didn’t realize that the crew that wins the America’s Cup are the crew and shore team that keep learning and improving during the Cup.
Building the boat and competitively sailing the races aren’t separate acts in the modern AC—not for a winner, not today, not in the globally competitive, dynamic environment of the 21st century.
Imagine being the NYYC and spending over 120 million US dollars, and only beating one single competing boat in a yacht race ever—and that’s during the Prada, not the actual AC.
Talk about payback for a century of prior sins!
Don’t forget—America used to demand the challenger sail across the ocean to compete for the Ole Mug—and then face a quiver of defenders. When one challenger had the audacity to show up with superior sails, organizers suddenly ruled that ‘all the stuff aboard’ must come from the challenging country. And this isn’t even mentioning the letter that circulated in NY prior to the Ben Lexcen challenge of the Royal Perth Yacht Club in 1983. It said that if Ben’s innovative within-the-rules keel was not immediately DSQed for some trumped up reason, the Cup would leave for Kangarooville. “Do something!” the letter pleaded in desperation.
Yes, historical karma and cosmic justice counts—even in the AC!
As Sir Peter Blake once said, “Imagine the America’s Cup without cheating!”
That, of course, is easier said than done. But the Kiwis have not only done their best to create a level playing field, they have literally bent over backwards to welcome and nurture their challengers.
Of this there can be no doubt—just review their behavior during American Magic’s dramatic crash. The entire Kiwi team didn’t just help keep the Americans from sinking, they also lent them men and materials for weeks afterwards. Never has a defender done so much for a challenger—a wonderful display of sportsmanship in a competition where the Kiwis had every right to just laugh, smile, and say, “Tough luck, pal!”
Another example was the final press conference between the Kiwis and the Italians. It was more like a love-in than the traditional AC gloat.
Here’s what really impressed me about the Kiwis. Each and every race of the America’s Cup, they went around the course faster. How? By improving their crew work all day on the water and making their boat faster all night in the shed. Peter Burling, their young shy skipper, said the word ‘learning’ more than any person in New Zealand during the AC.
In a sense, the Kiwis did their finest work during the final days and hours of their four-year effort.
Yes, they brought the fastest, most experimental boat they could to the AC. But It was only by jousting with the seasoned sailors on Luna Rossa that the Kiwis could truly see their weak points, and quickly correct them.
The Kiwis never stopped learning, never stopped improving, never stopped pushing themselves and their support team. Yes, their design team consisted of 32 designers, many of whom were burning the midnight oil on the final evening before the last race. Exactly how was their design group different? Well, they were mostly young and inexperienced. They didn’t know what could be done—had no idea what the conventional wisdom was—so they tried everything. No engineering idea was too wild, too crazy, too weird to be dismissed out-of-hand. The sole question was, could they make it work?
The result was foils that were 30% smaller (less drag) and considerably faster.
Full credit goes to overall team captain Grant Dalton—who allowed his youthful designer/engineers to dream with pens in their hands.
Example: For years, yacht designers have used computer-assisted techniques to refine their designs. At the same time, modern sailors have used sailing simulators to refine their racing skills. But the Kiwis added AI, artificial intelligence, to the mix. They never stopped learning, and neither did their computers. The Kiwis first taught a computer to sail an AC75 in a straight line—then to race… and then to race so well it could beat Peter Burling…then, ultimately, to use a design program that raced itself on over a thousand constantly evolving designs that it was continuously tweaking!
No sailing team has ever used Xs and Os as well as Team New Zealand.
The result wasn’t merely the most radical craft—and the design that took the most chances—it was also the most dependable 50+ knot wind-driven craft ever.
This isn’t to say that the Italians weren’t imaginative—they were.
I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how they controlled their perfect mainsail so perfectly —and I was blown away when I realized their boom was under the deck! How cool is that? It seemed to me that the Italians powerplant—their rig—was the equal of the Kiwis but it was their foils and hull aerodynamics that held them back a microsecond.
One of the reasons I’m so enthusiastic about the foiling AC75 is because of my wife. She couldn’t get over the beauty of the mark rounds, the jibes, and the *one-legged JKs—like ‘lovely alien ballerinas’ is how she expressed it. (*One-legged JKs are a foiling refinement on jibing after a mark rounding.)
She watched every race—and demanded that I take her to Italy (she’s an Italian-American) for the next AC if Luna Rossa won. I agreed—not because I thought the Kiwis would lose, but because I love Italian food so much.
Another thing that impressed me during this AC was how truthful the skippers of both teams were. Peter Burling said, when the press lavished praise on him, “Hey, it was a close race until we benefited from that right hand lift…” False modesty? Not really, judging from his overall comments during the entire 2021 AC. Peter Burling, in particular, was always reality based. The truth is, sometimes you win a yacht race; other times, the competition loses. A smart human being knows the difference.
Franscesco Bruni of Luna Rossa was amazingly hard on himself when he blew the final race by protecting the left. “When I get it wrong, I admit it,” he said, struggling visibly under the media spotlight, his pain (and nobility) plain to see.
But the real bottom line of the 36th America’s Cup of 2021 is how awesome the Awesome Kiwis really are. They have an emerging shy confidence I find highly admirable—not an ‘I can win’ but rather a ‘let us have a crack at it’ attitude.
The fencing on the farms of New Zealand is generally #8-gauge wire. When faced with a complicated, expensive, technological challenge, the ‘blokes’ on the farm (and in the Kiwi boat shed) say, “maybe 8-gauge?” as a sort of do-it-yourself, seat-of-your-pants joke.
The fact of the matter is that some shy, modest sheep farmers just proved, before the entire world, that they can best the billionaires of Europe and America with simple ingenuity, vast imagination, and a ton of hard-work applied consistently over a four-year period.
The Cup is in good hands—so is sailing innovation. The hard truth: the best team won in 1851 and the best team won the America’s Cup today. Countries evolve—but the culture of excellence stays the same.