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The America's Cup: Everything you need to know about the sailing competition

18 January 2021By Elaine Bunting

Ahead of the 2021 America's Cup in New Zealand, Elaine Bunting explains everything you need to know about the sailing competition in our handy guide - from America's Cup racing rules and history, to detailing just how fast those hydrofoil boats can go...

The America’s Cup is considered the pinnacle of yacht racing. Every four years, teams compete for the oldest trophy in international sport in yachts that represent the cutting edge of yacht design and technology.

The 36th America’s Cup will take place in Auckland, New Zealand in 2021. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The America’s Cup is a magnet for the world’s most talented sailors, names such as Sir Ben Ainslie, Jimmy Spithill, Dean Barker and Peter Burling. It is notoriously difficult to win, and the opportunity comes only once every four years. Yet the storied history of the Cup has always attracted brilliant minds and been backed by some of the wealthiest businessmen.

The 36th America’s Cup will take place in Auckland, New Zealand in 2021, and feature an astounding new design, the AC75 foiling monohull. The race to make this concept a reality has already taken teams almost three years. Soon we will see who has got it right in a showdown where, famously, “there is no second”.

The America’s Cup is a magnet for the world’s most talented sailors, including BOAT columnist Sir Ben Ainslie. Image courtesy of Tom Jamieson.

When is the America's Cup racing?

First blood for the Cup teams will be in the America’s Cup World Series in Auckland and the Christmas Race, held between 17 and 20 December. Races are planned to take place between 1600 and 1800 New Zealand time (0300-0500hrs GMT; 2200-0000hrs ET; 1900-2100 PT ).

This is the first preliminary to the America’s Cup proper in March (see below), but it will be hugely significant. Due to the pandemic, the America’s Cup World Series races planned in 2020 in Sardinia and the UK were cancelled so this will be the first time teams have a chance to race against each other. It will be a very important marker of how fast (or not) each of the yacht designs is.

The World Series is significant, too, because it will be the first and only time the Cup defender, Emirates Team New Zealand, will line up and race against the three challengers until the America’s Cup Match starts on 6 March. That runs until 21 March 2021.

Te Rehutai, the yacht of Emirates Team New Zealand. Image courtesy of Emirates Team New Zealand.

Which teams are racing for the America's Cup?

Emirates Team New Zealand, yacht Te RehutaiThe home team is the defender, having won the Cup in Bermuda in 2017. Heading it up is the steely Grant Dalton, with eight times America’s Cup campaigner Kevin Shoebridge capably in charge of the sailing side. The design team is also second to none – and between them they all set the rules this time.

The Kiwis boast some of the youngest sailors, who grew up in the era of foiling, notably the wildly gifted Pete Burling as helmsman and his Olympic champion crewmate Blair Tuke. This is the team to beat.

American Magic, yacht Patriot - Competing under the banner of the New York Yacht Club, this US team brings together funds and expertise from keen TP52 circuit sailors and businessmen John ‘Hap’ Fauth and Doug DeVos, world champion sailor Terry Hutchinson and Roger Penske, one of the biggest names in American motorsports.

The team’s helmsman is New Zealander Dean Barker, who has a controversial profile in his home country – he won the Cup for New Zealand back in 2000, subsequently fell out with the team, and is now doing his best to take it off to the US.

Patriot, the yacht of US team American Magic. Image courtesy of Sebastian Slayter.

INEOS Team UK, yacht Britannia II - Sir Ben Ainslie’s team is on its second well-funded bid to win the America’s Cup and “bring it home”. The mission is to be the first team from Britain ever to win the Cup since it was first contested and lost to the Americans in 1851). Ainslie, a superbly gifted sailor and four times Olympic Gold medallist, is the helmsman. Behind the funding from INEOS is supporter (and one of Britain’s richest men) Sir Jim Ratcliffe.

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, yacht Luna Rossa - The Italian team, backed by Patrizio Bertelli, is bristling with experience. Italian team skipper Max Sirena has been involved in six America’s Cups. The helmsman is straight-talking Australian Jimmy Spithill. This is his 7th Cup campaign. Spithill is the most successful Cup sailor in the line-up, having won it twice in 2010 and 2013 for Larry Ellison’s US team Oracle.

Luna Rossa, the yacht of Italy's Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli team. Image courtesy of Team Luna Rossa.

How can I watch the America's Cup?

America’s Cup racing is split into several parts between December and March and you can watch them all for free. All the racing will be streamed live on the official America’s Cup YouTube Channel, Facebook and on americascup.com.

It will also be on free-to-air and pay-to-view networks in 120 territories around the world, including TVNZ in New Zealand, RAI and Sky Italia in Italy, the BBC and Sky UK & Ireland in the UK, and NBC Sports in the USA and Caribbean.

A number of superyachts will be heading over to New Zealand to watch the races. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

How does America's Cup racing work?

Following the World Cup race series in December, the three challengers go on to vie for the Prada Cup and the right to race against Emirates Team New Zealand in the 36th America’s Cup Match in March.

American Magic, INEOS Team UK and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli compete in a series of one-on-one match races beginning on 15 January. The round robins continue through the month before progressing to a semi-final match on 2 February. The Prada Cup finals are settled over 13 races between 13 and 22 February, and will decide who goes on to challenge Emirates Team New Zealand in the final America’s Cup Match starting on 6 March.

Emirates Team New Zealand plays no part in the challenger racing, but they will still be out training, keenly observing rivals and honing final developments and techniques in secret.

The 2021 America's Cup will be a big event for the city of Auckland. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

What are the America's Cup yachts?

Teams are racing in the AC75 design, a radical 75ft long monohull with no keel that flies on foils at speeds of up to 50 knots.

Deciding the boat to be raced is one of the spoils of victory, and when Emirates Team New Zealand won the last America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017 they decided to create something never seen before, and where their knowledge of foiling could be a winning advantage.

The AC75 design rule is a so-called ‘box’ rule, which sets some key parameters such as hull length and overall length with bowsprit (75ft, hence the name AC75). The 62-page rule specification defines draught, minimum hull volume, number of sails, number of foils, even the number of boats – the teams have been allowed to build two and will all be racing with iteration No. 2 – but leaves other areas such as hull shape and foil flaps open for teams to develop.

The AC75 design of the INEOS team yacht. Image courtesy of Team INEOS.

As these yachts do not have keels, they rely for stability on a mere three tonnes of total ballast, plus 960-990kg allowed for 11 crew. The ballast is spread across two swivelling foils that look like arms (some say insect legs) on each side.

To keep some design costs down, the teams have one-design elements, such as the components and arms that move the foils up and down. However, the shape of the foils, the flaps and the control systems that operate them are absolutely key, and unique to each team.

The rule has also kept hull shape relatively open so we now see quite striking differences in shapes. This reflects different teams’ thinking about the best way to promote foiling as early as possible in the wind range and slip as smoothly as possible between displacement and flying modes. The sails are unique, too. The mainsails are twin-skinned soft wings, a new hybrid between a conventional sail and hard wing.

America's Cup yachts can reach speeds of up to 50 knots. Image courtesy of Will Ricketson.

How do the America's Cup yachts work?

The AC75s are designed to be able to fly in as little wind as possible, and as consistently as possible across the wind range up to the maximum of 23 knots allowable for the America’s Cup match. To do that, the yachts have a canting T-foil on each side that provides the lift to take the hull out of the water and fly.

The foils are ballasted to provide stability, and are set across a large beam, so the AC75s have a huge amount of righting moment. That means they can carry a very large and efficient sail area to drive the boat.

New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf serves as the racing grounds of the America's Cup. Image courtesy of Getty images.

Once the leeward foil lifts the hull clear of the water, there is very little drag, with only one slender foil and the T-foil rudder in the water. That, in a nutshell, is how it is possible for these yachts to reach 50 knots of boat speed, and potentially more.

In the real world, there are lots of variables that will affect foiling. New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf sees a large wind range, often blustery conditions, and there are also waves to contend with. Keeping a large boat foiling efficiently and consistently on just two slender points is like juggling on a slackline, and the control systems for rapid adjustments will be a critical but largely invisible factor.

New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf sees a large wind range and often blustery conditions that can affect performance of America's Cup yachts.Image courtesy of Getty images.

What's the history of the America's cup? 

Books could, and have, been written about the contentious history of the America’s Cup. It all began in 1851, when a syndicate of businessmen from New York sailed the schooner America across the Atlantic and beat a fleet of British yachts in a race around the Isle of Wight, winning the 100 Guinea Cup. Famously, Queen Victoria, who had watching the race, asked who was second and the famous reply came: “Your Majesty, there is no second.”

The 100 Guinea Cup was donated to the New York Yacht Club, renamed in honour of the schooner and a Deed of Gift drawn up for ‘a perpetual challenge cup for friendly competition between nations’. The America’s Cup is the oldest trophy in international sport and arguably the most difficult (and expensive) to win.

For 160 years, Britain has been trying to win it back. Challengers have included the tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton, who challenged five times between 1899 and 1930.

For 160 years, Britain has been trying to win the America's Cup back. Image courtesy of C. Gregory.

After a golden era of racing in the J Class yachts, the Cup was raced for in the 12-metre design, then an evolving International America’s Cup Class. More recently it has been contested in much faster multihull designs.

The America’s Cup has always been defined by, and contested with, the backing of some of the world’s wealthiest businessmen. Winners have included Harold Vanderbilt (1930, 1934 and 1937) and Henry Sears (1958). In the modern era, Ernesto Bertarelli’s team Alinghi won in 2003 and 2007 before losing to Larry Ellison’s Oracle Racing in 2010. Ellison’s US team successfully defended in 2013 before losing to New Zealand in 2017. Both men retreated from the America’s Cup following their defeats, but Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of the Prada Group, is still trying to win it for Italy after five Cup campaigns with the Luna Rossa Challenge.

Since 1851, the US has defended or won the America’s Cup 30 times, New Zealand three times, Switzerland (Alinghi) twice, and Australia once (Alan Bond’s Australia II in 1983). Despite 16 challenges in a Cup match since 1870, Britain has never yet won back the trophy that left its shores in 1851.

J-Class yachts were the original participants of the America's Cup. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

What is the America's Cup trophy?

The America’s Cup, affectionately known as the ‘Auld Mug’ is an impressive piece of silverware. Including its pedestal, it stands 1.1m high and weighs over 14kg. It was made by London-based silver maker Robert Garrard & Co, the royal jeweller since 1735, and was originally a claret jug. It was given an extra pedestal in 1958 to make room for more engraving, and when that ran out of space, another was added in 1992.

A little known fact (which says so much about America’s Cup rivalry) is that when Oracle won the trophy in 2010 the engraving marking rivals Alighi’s victory was rotated round to the rear. A new base in carbon fibre was also made to replace the mahogany one.

The America's Cup trophy. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

When Louis Vuitton sponsored the challenger series, the America’s Cup was given its own large Vuitton trunk on its 150th birthday in 1998. With Oracle as the holder it was accompanied everywhere and closely guarded by white-gloved bodyguards.

On winning it in 2017, Emirates Team New Zealand took it to yacht clubs round its home country and let members and young sailors handle the famous silver trophy.

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