The boats that competed for the 32nd America’s Cup, off Valencia, Spain, in 2007, weren’t much faster than the ones Queen Victoria watched sail down the Solent strait during the first Cup race almost 170 years ago. But the yacht-technology advances of the last several years have been nothing short of astounding.
New craft-lifting, drag-reducing hydrofoils and wingsails, augmented by ultra-responsive control systems and space-age aerodynamics, have nearly quintupled boat speeds while improving maneuverability. The catamarans that will fly above water in the 35th America’s Cup qualifiers, playoffs, and finals, to be held on Bermuda’s Great Sound in May and June, will reach speeds exceeding 55 mph. Sammy Hagar should take note.
So should Gordon Moore, whose eponymous law describing the rapid advances in information technology seems to have made its way to the dynamic world of yacht racing. Just as computer-processing speeds have roughly doubled every one to two years for most of the last half-century, while computers have gotten smaller and less expensive, today’s America’s Cup Class (ACC) boats are following a similar arc.
The specs for the ACC catamarans in this year’s competition limit their waterline length to 15 meters (49.21 feet) and weight to about 2,400 kilograms (just over 2.5 tons, plus 6 crew members). In comparison, the AC72 cats that raced on San Francisco Bay in 2013 were about 22 meters long and weighed 5,900 kilograms (6.5 tons, plus 11 crew). In the 2007 America’s Cup, they were 27 meters long and weighed a whopping 24 tons (plus 17 crew).
The rules stipulating shorter, lighter boats have been driven by relatively recent design and technology breakthroughs. For example, the power-to-weight efficiency improvements generated by the rigid wingsail that ORACLE TEAM USA introduced into the 2010 competition—the first of two consecutive America’s Cup victories for the team—made it possible to build much lighter boats that could still take on winds that were even stiffer than in the 2007 competition. Those lighter boats, in turn, led to the advent of foiling in the 2013 competition on San Francisco Bay.
Technology Arms Race
The America’s Cup rules state that certain boat parts, such as a large portion of the hulls and the shape of the wings, must be identical—measures implemented in recent years to reduce the exorbitant cost of designing and building these high-speed sailing machines. But teams can still customize various key elements, including the hydraulics system that controls the wingsail, foils, rudders, jib sail, and other parts of the craft. Because those technical customizations are so important to gaining a competitive advantage, America’s Cup teams have aligned with a range of innovation partners.
For example, working with Airbus, ORACLE TEAM USA has developed a control system that borrows concepts from the flight-control system of the Airbus A350 XWB airliner. The human-machine interface to that system is a new twist grip, modeled on a motorcycle throttle, that the team developed with partner BMW. Those innovations have reduced the time from when the helmsman responds to boat motions via a subtle twist of his wrist to the time the relevant boat apparatus responds to 100 milliseconds, compared with 400 milliseconds four years ago, says Ian “Fresh” Burns, the team’s director of performance.
Another critical design differentiator is the shape and weight of the foils that lift the boat out of the water, reducing the hull’s drag to near zero. ORACLE TEAM USA experimented with its AC72 foils at Airbus’s facility in Hamburg, Germany, putting them through vibration, torsion, bending, and pressure tests before settling on an alternative design and manufacturing process for the foils for its latest ACC boat. The result is foils that should allow ORACLE TEAM USA’s catamaran to fly above water for most of the time on Bermuda’s tight racecourse—upwind and downwind—compared with about half of the time during the San Francisco races.
And while the wingsails on all America’s Cup boats are now the exact same size and shape under the rules, teams can still optimize their performance. During recent training runs, ORACLE TEAM USA has laced its wing with about 400 Airbus-developed pressure sensors, called MEMs (micro-electro-mechanical systems), which supply the team with data on the flow up and down the rigid, 24-meter-high sail under various wind conditions. That analysis has helped the team reduce the wingsail’s drag by one-third to one-half compared with four years ago, while producing about twice as much power, Burns says.
It used to be that building the actual boat represented about 80% of the cost of getting it on the water, he says. Now the boat investment is much more heavily weighted toward the kinds of technical refinements described above.
“The development path is steep. We’re doing things this month that we couldn’t do last month,” Burns says. “Same with the other teams. Even if you’re behind, standing outside watching the other teams means you can get back on the same kind of curve.”
The information technology on the America’s Cup boats and basecamps is also drafting Moore’s Law. Burns estimates that ORACLE TEAM USA now uses roughly 10 times the network capacity and 100 times the compute capacity that it used just four years ago—to move and analyze the terabytes of video and other data it now collects on everything from the power the sailors exert during onboard training to long-term wind patterns over the Great Sound.
Yet the cost outlay for that orders-of-magnitude increase in capacity is about the same as it was four years ago, thanks to the ever-declining price/performance of processing power, bandwidth, databases, and other IT assets. (For a Moore’s Law parallel, in the first seven revs of Oracle Exadata, the preconfigured hardware-software database machine Oracle introduced in 2008, Oracle increased its storage capacity 8-fold, flash 32-fold, CPU cores 5.5-fold, memory 24-fold, and Ethernet connectivity 50-fold, according to a 2016 analysis by The Next Platform. And Oracle offered all these advancements at a near-constant price.)
Even the cost of the data-collecting biosensors strapped to ORACLE TEAM USA sailors is plummeting, as the team buys commodity devices developed for other fields and adapts them for its purposes. “Our challenge isn’t having enough budget,” Burns says. “It’s to limit the number of sensors to the stuff we can actually handle.”
While observing the schooner America lead that first Cup race in 1851, Queen Victoria famously asked one of her attendants to tell her who was in second place. “Your Majesty, there is no second,” was the reply. That response is no less true in today’s hypercompetitive, technology-centric world of professional yacht racing.