9 Min Read
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The come-from-behind victory of Larry Ellison's America's Cup team is a tale of learning how to fly a boat - and pushing the equipment, the rules and the crew to the very limit in the process.
Ellison's Oracle Team USA fought back from an 8-1 deficit against the mighty Emirates Team New Zealand to win sailing's biggest trophy last week in a series of races in 72-foot high-tech catamarans that sometimes exceeded 50 miles per hour on San Francisco Bay.
The Oracle comeback was lauded as one of the greatest in sports history. Yet the abrupt turnaround in the team's performance in the middle of the finals series also has set off a flurry of speculation about whether Oracle, which began the regatta with a penalty for illegally modifying a practice boat last year, had used secret technological enhancements to engineer its comeback.
An online article in Sail-World summarized speculation that Oracle may have used "superhuman' technology," such as a computer-controlled stabilization system, that would have been against the rules.
Oracle emphatically rejected the notion of any high-tech silver bullet, and there is no evidence that the team did anything illegal.
Some of the speculation appears to stem from a protest lodged by New Zealand just before the finals began over an Oracle system that used an electrical switch to control the movements of the boat's daggerboards. The challenge was rejected by the jury that addresses rules disputes, in part because it was lodged too late.
The system might have helped Oracle perfect the intricate movements of daggerboards, sails and rudders that were needed to keep the boat sailing at top speed - although it was far from being any sort of computerized control system.
Oracle says it achieved the turnaround the old-fashioned way: continual adjustments to the intricate boats, experimentation with sailing tactics, and relentless hard work by the sailors and the shore crew.
The turnaround appeared to begin just before race six, when Oracle was down 4-1 and used its single "postponement card" to take a 47-hour timeout to overhaul its boat, crew and training regimen. It started tweaking its boat each night - when it was hauled out of the water and the 135-foot wing was removed - and practicing on rest days, which New Zealand did not appear to do, or need to do. It returned to the race course each day with improved speed and crew work.
The America's Cup yachts are 72-foot catamarans, which by design are fast because they can sail with just one hull in the water for less resistance. But the New Zealand team was the first to perfect hydrofoiling, finding that the boats could be nudged to lift the hulls completely out of the water onto thin carbon-fiber blades. As they 'foil,' they appear to fly above the water - and their speed increases with reduced drag.
The rival boats had never faced off on the water before the finals started on September 7.
Throughout the regatta the boats looked evenly matched on the downwind legs, reaching speeds approaching 50 mph. The regatta was won and lost during the upwind zigzags, where Oracle's team mastered the trick of flying on the foils.
Oracle's lead designer, Dirk Kramer, told Reuters the U.S.-based team initially misjudged how fast the Kiwis would be sailing the boat into the wind. Early races were an eye opener and the focus shifted from performance with the wind to sailing into it, which required stabilizing the boat on its foils and a new approach to steering and wing trim.
Oracle began the finals two races behind and without a key crew member as punishment for breaking the rules by adding weight to its boat in a preliminary series. It had to recover from a capsize during training last year in which its boat was dragged out to sea and all but destroyed, an event Skipper Jimmy Spithill cited as a devastating moment but one that ultimately helped pull the team together.
The class rules allowed teams to make certain changes to their purpose-built AC72s. But even the tiniest alterations were checked by a team of independent measurers before racing and certified as conforming to specifications.
Sail experts and insiders have been speculating about how Oracle stabilized their boat, allowing it to foil better.
"Before they postponed that race, the (Oracle) boat was unstable when it was foiling, and they weren't foiling upwind," said Peter Thomas, who was on the building team at Cookson Boats, which built the New Zealand boat. "They definitely weren't foiling as well as Team New Zealand were. And after two days in the shed, the boat came out foiling everywhere."
Much of the discussion was based on whether electronics, computers or a motion-stabilizing gyroscope did some of the work meant to be handled by the crew. David Le Pelley, manager of the Yacht Research Unit and Wind Tunnel at the University of Auckland, which helped the New Zealand team, said both teams tuned their boats.
"Team New Zealand had a lot more time in the water given the Oracle crash, so Oracle had been on the back foot to some extent, so they'd had to play catch up and they got to the point where they managed to get more out of the boat than we did at the end," he said.
Kramer on Saturday denied any use of computer-automated controls to manage the foils and stabilize the yacht. "Negative. No," he said.
The yacht had a stabilization system but it was operated by humans, Kramer said. "There's no computer driving any surfaces at all."
Small electronic switches were used to open and close the hydraulic valves clutches. Theses were commercially available, not customized, according to Kramer.
The measurement committee gave Oracle permission in August to use an "electro-mechanical actuator" to move a valve. The jury on September 6 dismissed New Zealand's claim that the actuator violated the manpower-only rule but on the basis that it was filed too late.
"Most items we used in there are literally servos from your kid's remote-control airplane," Kramer said. "It's exactly as simple as that. It gets bolted to a valve and that is what operates things."
Kramer said the many changes made to the yacht were "all small and all visible."
"A lot had to do with the balance of the boat," he said.
Minor changes were made to the shape of the 135-foot tall wing - the catamaran's main sail - and to the rear of the hulls.
To reduce wind resistance, they swapped out the pointy bowsprit between the boat's two hulls with a stubbier version, because the winds were too strong for the billowing headsail that attaches to it.
The top of the vertical fixed wing was tilted slightly forward and rearward to try different "rake" angles.
Oracle also replaced renowned tactician John Kostecki, a San Francisco hometown favorite, with British Olympic sailing champion Ben Ainslie, the backup skipper on Oracle's practice yacht, leaving a single American on the winning boat.
"The sailors made a change to the way they were sailing the boat so we adapted the boat to help them make that change. There was no silver bullet," said Grant Simmer, general manager of the Oracle team, denying speculation that Oracle had flown in extra carbon fiber components from New Zealand where parts of its 72-foot catamaran were built.
Meanwhile, Ellison, the billionaire software mogul of Oracle Corp, was a cheerleader on the sidelines, leaving the decisions to his well-paid professionals.
"He was encouraging us to keep going and never give in," Simmer said.
In New Zealand, the loss has frequently been explained as boiling down to money - that the Kiwis in the end could not compete with a billionaire.
Oracle acknowledged it had outspent New Zealand but it is not clear how much by. Estimates of Oracle's cup defense range well over $100 million but sources said the spigots were not opened any wider for the emergency work carried out after the team lost four of the event's first five races to the Kiwis.
New Zealand backed its team with about $30 million in government funds. Managing Director Grant Dalton also raised tens of millions of dollars from sponsors over several years, and said the team spent about $100 million in all.
Oracle Team USA CEO Russell Coutts told Reuters that the team probably spent 10 percent more than New Zealand, based on his estimate of a Kiwi outlay of 105 million to 110 million euros ($142 million to $149 million.) He said salaries for designers and sailors made up 56 percent of Oracle's cost.
In the end, though, a dejected Dean Barker, skipper of the Kiwi yacht, said in a post-racing blog that his team had wrung all the performance possible out of its boat before the race, while Oracle came in with room to improve.
Oracle just learned to fly the boat well, he wrote.
"Their boat was better suited for doing that for extended periods," Barker said. "They certainly were doing a better job finding that extra gear that we simply couldn't."
Additional reporting by Ronnie Cohen and Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Peter Henderson, Frank McGurty, Jonathan Weber and Bill Trott