Trends down under

Since the early ’60s, New Zealand and Australia have ranked as premier sailing nations, but never before has the attention of the sailing world been focused Down Under to the extent that is now. Even the ’87 America’s Cupwidely regarded as the most successful so farwas a single big event held in the solitary splendor of Perth, world’s most isolated major city. In contrast, the 1999-2000 period sees back-to-back sailing extravaganzas, the America’s Cup and the Olympic Regatta, in major sailing centers, Auckland and Sydney. It’s true that these are inshore events, but even the most singleminded blue-water sailor should not underestimate their importance when it comes to advancing the state of the art in general, and in showcasing sailing before the eyes of the world.

At much the same time, ocean racing Down Under has achieved a special notoriety of latethe inevitable aftermath of last year’s Telstra Sydney-Hobart disaster (second worst in ocean racing history after the ’79 Fastnet). Australian yachting journalist Rob Mundle has pulled together a gripping account in his recent book Fatal Stormrecommended reading for any serious offshore sailor. Obviously, the race organizers were under a microscope in 1999, and they took unprecedented lengths to ensure that “the last major ocean race of the millennium” would be a safe, successful event.A vicious sea state

In fairness to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia and name sponsor Telstra, safety regulations in effect during the catastrophic 1998 Sydney/Hobart were already on a par with other major ocean races. On the other hand, this race course has always had a particularly vicious reputation. In the words of veteran Australian yacht designer Scott Judson, “…the consistent effect of wind against [three- to four-knot] current creates sea states that are fundamentally unique in the world of established ocean races. When this combination is average, it can and does break boats. When it is severe, it is as vicious a sea state as you would ever hope to encounter.” Furthermore, the well-known Aussie tradition of laughing in the face of danger may have helped set the stage for last year’s horrors. As Judson notes “… the ‘average’ [Australian] offshore crew … becomes progressively immunized to conditions that would be considered unacceptable for racing in other parts of the world. Furthermore, Sydney-Hobart is part and parcel of the Australian Christmas holiday, and knowing that family and friends have flown ahead to meet the fleet is a powerful inducement to press ahead in questionable conditions.”

No question, everyone was wide awake sober when it came time to plan for the ’99 race. Entries were down 30% from ’98, no doubt because some of those “average” crews decided the potential rewards just weren’t worth the risks. But the day after Christmas, some 80 exceptionally well-prepared race boats (see sidebar) rode a booming southeasterly toward Bass Strait.

As it turned out, the preparation paid off when meteorological history repeated itself. December 26 and 27 duplicated the ideal broad-reaching conditions last seen in 1975, producing outright record times by yachts as small as 40 feet. The 28th, however, brought a vicious southern buster that stopped the slower boats in their tracks. When the dust finally settled, ’99 was both the fastest and among the slowest Hobart races ever. Thirty yachts withdrew, but every competitor made it back to port without outside assistance.

Line honors were hotly contested by several “conventional” 80-foot maxi boats, the Whitbread 60 Nokia, which finished third in the last Volvo/Whitbread Race as Swedish Match, and the Australian open 60 Magna Data. The latter took an early lead but was hobbled a bit after blowing a spinnaker and breaking one rudder on the back of an ocean sunfish. Nokia and the 80-foot Bindabella continued the battle for the lead, but, as the wind swung forward in Bass Strait, the blast-reaching potential of the water-ballasted 60 carried the day. Nokia, skippered by Michael Spies and Stefan Myralf, finished in an unbelievable one day, 18 hours, 27 minutesmore than 18 hours inside the old record. Nokia’s average of 14.82 knots is especially impressive considering that her crew elected to throttle back to safeguard the equipment rather than pressing for a 24-hour run record. Faster yet was the 146-foot Mari Cha III, current monohull transatlantic record holder and a demonstration yacht in the ’99 Sydney-Hobart. She finished one hour, 20 minutes ahead of Nokia but was ineligible for official records or line honors. However, next year a superyacht class is planned.

Conditions early in the race were so favorable that a total of 16 boats, including two 40-footers, broke the existing course record set by the German maxi Morning Glory in 1996. New Sydney-to-Hobart elapsed time records now stand in four of the six classes (based on LOA).

The Farr 40 Leroy Brown turned in one of the most impressive performances, with the Sydney 40 Sword of Orion not far behind. Incidentally, the Farr 40 has recently been selected to replace the Mumm 36 for the next Admiral’s Cup, where it will join the Sydney 40 and the ILC 50 to make up the three-boat teams. About two thirds of the fleet managed to reach Hobart, or at least the Tasmanian coast, before violent headwinds descended upon those still in Bass Strait. Yachts that did finish well included some surprisingly modest programs, such the Radford 40 Red Jacket, which averaged near 10 knots over the course to win IMS Division C. Owner Ron Lally had trucked his low-budget, home-built racer across the continent from West Australia for the second year in a row, citing “unfinished business” in Bass Strait after a forced retirement in the ’98 storm. Among the crews still on the course after the weather turned vile, there were several injuries that necessitated diversions into port, but nothing to compare with the preceding year. On the other hand, New Year’s Day found a record eight boats still either at sea and struggling toward the finish or holed up waiting for better weather to complete the course. America’s CupMeanwhile, the attention of the sailing world had, for the most part, re-focused on Auckland, New Zealand, for the January 2 start of the America’s Cup Challenger semi-final round. For the seven syndicates still in the hunt, the “Christmas break” was just a few more precious days to fine-tune equipment, re-cut sails, and polish already formidable boathandling skills.

Some sailors like to dismiss the America’s Cup as essentially irrelevant to the sport as a whole. But, since 1983 when Australia carried off the New York Yacht Club’s prize trophy, what was once a curious summer ritual in Newport has ballooned in something that rivals the intensity and unpredictability of an NFL playoff game. At the time of writing, the final stage of the Louis Vuitton (challenger selection) semi-finals has become a bona fide cliff-hanger, and even non-sailors have been tuning in by the millions. And, as with mainstream professional sports, there’s now a great deal of money riding on the outcome, mostly in the form of future commercial benefits.

In preparing for this Cup, the city of Auckland elected to transform a section of a dilapidated industrial waterfront into a posh wonderland of marinas, condos, and restaurants. The gamble paid off with the Cup Village becoming the number-one tourist attraction in a tourism-oriented country. New Zealand’s numerous yacht-related industries likewise enjoying an unprecedented boom. A successful defense would mean another big economic windfall down the road (and next time with fewer offsetting construction costs). It’s little wonder both challengers and defender take their jobs pretty seriously.”Technology trickle down” is a shopworn phrase but a valid concept when linked to the America’s Cup. Simply put, there’s no other sailing event that attracts research and development funding at a comparable level. Even the programs aiming for this December’s unlimited round-the-world race are (with the exception of Britain’s Pete Goss) spending their money on big, conventional multihull designs and off-the-shelf equipment.

In contrast, for a shot at winning the America’s Cup, it’s essential to break new technological ground. The International America’s Cup Class (IACC) has matured to a point that all successful designs look very similar, yet every one of the current generation is significantly faster than New Zealand’s Kiwi Magicthe boat that swept the ’95 Cup in five straight races.

Here, in no particular order, are some of IACC developments that are influencing the evolution of more mainstream yachts:

Computer-aided design: Sophisticated flow-modeling programs adopted from the aircraft industry have made it feasible to evaluate numerous, subtle variations in hulls, keels and rudders. The complex flow patterns where hull bodies join appendages are now being examined in detail. Many syndicates still run a few models through test tanks, but mainly to double check that they’re on the right track. Now that Cup programs have subsidized the initial development, computer flow modeling is becoming more accessible for other yacht design projects.

Instrumentation and data analysis: Starting in the ’80s, each America’s Cup competition has launched a new wave of high-tech number crunching. Leading-edge work in this area at present includes techniques for fine-scale wind prediction and real-time stress measurement using sensors built into composite structures. Just as waterproof laptop computers and performance prediction software have quickly proliferated at the club racing level, look for the latest developments in sailing electronics to “trickle down” in fairly short order.

Narrow beam: The IACC rule sets no lower limit on either hull or waterline beam, and with each generation the boats have gotten slimmer. More than anything else, it’s a reminder that the performance benefits of form stability are often overrated. Certainly, many handicap rules, open class rules, etc., have artificially encouraged beamy shapes. Of course, a plump hull provides a spacious interior.

Whale-tail keel bulbs: A remarkable refinement of the winged keel made famous by Australia II. The pair of nearly horizontal fins that project port and starboard from the aft tips of most ACC ballast bulbs not only improve efficiency to windward, but actually produce a bit of extra thrust as the hull moves over waves on downwind legs.

Spinnaker design: There’s amazing latitude in the possible 3-D shapes for a free-flying sail, particularly with the added dimension of asymmetrical shapes. Asymmetricals are better for straight-line speed, but IACC boats also use symmetrical chutes in windy conditions because the latter keep power on through the gybes. Spinnaker design lessons learned by Cup sailmakers are directly applicable to mainstream racing and voyaging sailboats.

Mast developments: After Kiwi Magic won easily in ’85 with a heavier but much stiffer mast than her competitors, all IACC boats have progressed considerably further down the same road. Current-generation masts stand up to 100,000 lbs compression loads, including about 30,000 lbs of tension on the forestay alone. The goal, of course, is keeping forestay sag variations to a bare minimum because a more stable genoa shape means better pointing and less heel.

Bigger “wing masts” are inherently stiffer than smaller sections and need not offer more windage if aligned with the local air flow. In Auckland, the Young America syndicate appeared to go the furthest with the twisting wing-mast concept. Unfortunately they didn’t make the semi-finals, but it’s generally believed that their gear was extremely fast.

>”Non-stretch” sails: Of course, everything deforms at least a little under load, but the carbon-fiber reinforced sails developed in IACC racing are by far the most stable yet. Furthermore, with each IACC boat permitted only a limited number of measured sails, the last few years have brought huge improvements in the reliability and longevity of carbon sails.

Big roach mains: The nearly rectangular mainsails of the IACC boats are extremely difficult to build because the outsized roach is prone to twist away uncontrollably or deform in a variety of ugly ways. By learning to get it right while working for the Cup syndicates, sailmakers end up far ahead when it comes to building fully battened mains for other applications.

Cordage and deck hardware: To a great extent, the current generation of high-tech lines were initially developed for America’s Cup programs. In all probability there are even better products currently in use on some of the boats in Auckland, but we won’t be hearing much about them until after the finals. Similarly, each Cup produces a new generation of winches, blocks, and travelers that’s lighter and more efficient than the last. Syndicates often team up with manufacturers and subsidize the development of proprietary gear. Luckily, the new technology usually becomes available on the open market at the end of the Cup cycle.

Boatbuilding: There’s a widespread perception that IACC boats are delicate because they’ve been known to break apart in conditions that wouldn’t make an ocean racer break a sweat. In reality, however, they’re amazingly strong. Astronomical rig loads put great stress on the hulls, and the mechanical stiffness of virtually every part of the boat translates into massive shock loads when pressing through waves.

The successful boats have all been very close to the maximum displacement allowed under the IACC rule (55,000 lbs). However, since every ounce saved in the rig, sails, or hull goes back into the ballast package, there’s a powerful incentive to pare away excess structural weight. Advanced tools such as finite element analysis are a big help in skirting the edge of disaster, but engineering is never a perfect science. It’s a tough way to learn, but each time something major breaks during a Cup campaign the designers and builders can edge a little closer to the ideal.

As it happens, USA-53the Young America boat that split amidships and nearly sank in Auckland last fallwas designed by Bruce Farr and built by Eric Goetz, two of the top names in the race boat industry. Both will no doubt be putting the harsh lessons of Auckland to good use as they work up future projects. Looking ahead When all is said and done, the Cup racing on Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf may well be decided by seat-of-the-pants sailing skill rather than technical nuances. By tradition, however, the America’s Cup is a design contest as well as a sailing contest, so there’s little risk that a one design class will ever be selected for this event. Yes, it’s a cumbersome way to persuade big corporations to finance sail-related research, but strangely enough it seems to be working.

The rough-and-tumble action of the latest America’s Cup has produced some excellent televisionmuch better than anything I’ve seen so far on the major offshore races. Looking at the bright side, this coverage is fantastic promotion for sailing as a whole, and it’s sure to attract new blood to all branches of the sport. Now, if only the upcoming Olympic Regatta could also get some serious air time on North American television.

By Ocean Navigator