Saturday, February 17, 2018

Changes bring forth speedy America's Cup

When the high-tech catamarans hit the water of San Francisco Bay for today's start of the America's Cup, don't expect the same deck-to-deck racing and nail-biting finishes to which sailing fans have grown accustomed.

"The America's Cup has always been about innovation and design," said St. Petersburg's Ed Baird, who led the Swiss team, Alinghi, to victory in the 2007 America's Cup. "That's how it started, with the U.K. saying to the U.S., 'Hey, we can build a better boat than you can.' "

But this 34th meeting of the world's top sailors will be nothing like the iconic Cup races fans have seen before. When Baird sailed with Team New Zealand in 1995 and Alinghi two years later, the International America's Cup Class boats were roughly 80 feet long and had an average speed of about 10 knots (11.5 mph).

"If you had a 1 percent advantage over the other boat, it was enough to go a little faster," he said. "But that was not enough to keep the other boat from maneuvering to try to regain the lead. That's what made it exciting."

But the AC72 boats competing this year are catamarans, inherently faster than monohulls. These speedsters don't have traditional sails — they have fixed wings — and the boats rise out of the water and fly across the surface on hydrofoils at speeds of nearly 50 mph.

"In the past, the technological improvements have been mostly incremental, so no team ever got a huge advantage," Baird said. "The boats were evenly matched, which is why tactics played such an important role."

Baird said there could be a big disparity between the new AC72s, the defender Oracle Team USA and the challenger Emirates Team New Zealand.

"If you have one boat going 30 knots and the other going 40 knots, whichever one gets out in front and rounds the mark first, there will be no catching them," he said. "The race will be won or lost in the first minute."

The race course will be shorter than those in previous Cups, in part to make it easier for spectators on shore to follow the action. And instead of the race running an hour or more, it could be over in 25 minutes.

"A yacht race doesn't have to move fast to be exciting," Baird said. "Just look at golf and baseball. It is the drama, the tension and the pressure that makes those sports fun to watch."

Former Olympic gold medalist Allison Jolly, St. Petersburg's other most famous sailor, said she has mixed feelings about this running of the America's Cup.

"The new technology is very cool," said Jolly, who now coaches sailing at USF St. Petersburg. "But sailors also want to see a good, even matchup.

"If one boat has distinct technological advantage," she added. "This could be a blowout."


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