SAN FRANCISCO — With the Italian challenger withdrawing from race one in the best of 13 Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series Saturday, and the New Zealand boat doing the same in race two on Sunday — both due to mechanical failures — even the most ardent proponents of the America’s Cup are asking whether that by requiring teams to sail AC72s (radical, 72-foot-long, wing-sailed, foiling catamarans), America’s Cup has gone a boat too far.
America’s Cup has, since the world’s oldest sporting event began in 1851, been about technological innovation. Larry Ellison, head of the U.S. defender, Oracle Team USA, and co-founder and chief executive of high-tech giant, Oracle, said the AC72 was chosen precisely because it is an extreme design. The idea was to attract television audiences and fans by infusing excitement into a sport that many believed to be stodgy.
What Ellison spawned are $100 million technological wonders that are so fragile that the slightest mistake can lead them to being seriously damaged or destroyed by the high winds and strong ebb tides of San Francisco Bay.
That nearly happened on Saturday in a race that Emirates Team New Zealand had in the bag. Italy’s Luna Rossa Challenge was well behind due to a mechanical failure of the apparatus that secured its dagger board. Team New Zealand had only to round the leeward mark for one final lap, when skipper Dean Barker called that a strong puff of wind was about to hit. Just as he warned his crew, a 24-knot blast pushed the Kiwi turning boat forward, burying its port (left) hull into a swell, swamping the deck and bringing Team New Zealand almost to a stop. NBC Sports color commentator Ken Read described it as, “like coming up your driveway and running into your garage at 40 miles per hour.”
Two of Team New Zealand’s burley sail trimmers, called grinders, were thrown overboard as Barker called, “Man Overboard!” and chase boats rushed to rescue them. Team New Zealand completed the race, shorthanded, causing Nathan Outteridge, helmsman of the now-eliminated Swedish boat, Artemis Racing, to quip, “To finish first, you first need to finish.”
Still, the crash happened so suddenly, that Barker was left to scratch his head wondering what he could have done differently to avoid a near capsize while still sailing aggressively. The dilemma is compounded by the complexity of these boats. Read, a former America’s Cup helmsman and strategist, described the new AC72s as “so technologically advanced that any minor situation that’s not exactly perfect, whether it be stress or the weight loads they’re dealing with, could cause a malfunction.”
“Nothing on these boats is there to do anything other than make these boats go faster and that’s it. If one little thing happens, all of a sudden, it’s a domino effect that could turn onto several others.” Read said. “They are complex machines that need constant pampering and tweeking.”
Chris Draper helmsman for Luna Rossa described how around-the-clock training and maintenance has exhausted his team.
“Luna Rossa has been sailing nonstop for four days straight and when we’re not sailing, the boats are being maintained. As soon as we finish, technicians are immediately on board, looking for any sign of cracking in the carbon fibre hulls. It’s pretty full on for everybody, keeping these boats on the water.”
Read described the Louis Vuitton Cup, presently, as a “demolition derby.” Though, he could have added that AC72s are “a boat too far.”