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

9 February 2021• Written by 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.

This is a magnet for the world’s most talented sailors. 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 world’s most ambitious and successful businessmen.

The America’s Cup match is held between only two teams, the defender and one challenger. The series that establishes the right to be that challenging team was held through January and February, and provided some genuinely shocking moments.

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

WHAT HAS HAPPENED SO FAR?

Two of the four challengers were eliminated in the Prada Cup challenger series in January and February. The US team American Magic spectacularly spun out of control and capsized in a high-wind, high-speed mark rounding. Despite rapidly being rebuilt, the team was unable to get the boat fully functional again and was ousted from the Prada Cup without a single win.

The British team INEOS Team UK, led by Sir Ben Ainslie, won the opening round robin series handsomely and were regarded as favourites only to shock fans when they were thrashed 7-1 in the Prada Cup final by the clearly faster Italian team Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli.

So after several brutal gladiatorial rounds, the match is on between old rivals Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. The stakes are sky-high: whoever wins the America’s Cup not only earns the historic America’s Cup ‘Auld Mug’ trophy, but they get to write the rule for 37th America’s Cup in four years, defining the yacht design, how it is sailed – and to choose the venue where it will all take place.

It is a winner-takes-all format. The America’s Cup is famously a race in which, as Queen Victoria was informed during the first contest in 1851, “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.

HOW IS THE AMERICA’S CUP WINNER DECIDED?

The challenger, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, will race against the defender, Emirates Team New Zealand in the 36th America’s Cup match series starting on 10 March.

There are two races each day on 12, 13 and 14 March with additional days on 15, 16 and 17 March if needed to conclude the first-to-seven wins series.

A choice of race course is decided each day depending on wind conditions, but the courses are all windward-leewards with around 3km between each end and around 1.5km from side to side.

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

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE TEAMS RACING FOR THE AMERICA’S CUP?

Emirates Team New Zealand, yacht Te Rehutai – The 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, who share a Gold and Silver Medal and six World Championship wins in the high performance 49er class.

The pair works in partnership with the team’s resident Australian Olympian, Glenn Ashby. This successful triumvirate was a crucial ingredient in Emirates Team New Zealand’s last Cup win. Ashby is key to tactical decisions, Blair Tuke is the so-called flight controller in charge of flaps on the foils and rudder, with Peter Burling is steering and coolly making those split-second decisions on the race course.

Their yacht Te Rehutai has many visible differences compared with Luna Rossa. It is a more brutal looking design beside the smooth shaped, elegant Italian boat, and has quite different shaped foils (see ‘How do the America’s Cup yacht work?’): New Zealand’s are almost flat across the wing base, while Luna Rossa’s foils are in a dihedral shape, sloping downwards from a central wing bulb.

These are just the most obvious differences, and there will be many more variations beneath the surface, especially in the complex control systems. Yet despite dissimilarities, the speed differential between teams in the Prada Cup varied only by fractions of a knot, putting the emphasis on dominating pre-start manoeuvres, reading the wind shifts and match racing the opponent. These will all play a part in the Cup match too.

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

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, yacht Luna Rossa - The Italian team, backed by Patrizio Bertelli, is bristling with experience. Italian team boss Max Sirena has been involved in six America’s Cups.

At the wheel, the Italians have a set-up never seen before, with straight-talking Australian Jimmy Spithill helming on starboard and Italian Olympic sailor Francesco Bruni helming on port. When one is steering, the other acts as flight controller and trims the foils.

It is a formidable partnership. Spithill is the most successful Cup sailor in the line-up, having been part of seven campaigns and winning it twice in 2010 and 2013 for Larry Ellison’s US team Oracle. Bruni, meanwhile, has three Olympics behind him and several Cup campaigns himself.

While this unconventional division of control between the two helmsmen prompted observers to shake their heads at first, it has proved highly successful. Spithill has suggested that the arrangement allowed them both to accelerate their skills, while at a very practical level it means no one has to jump out of the cockpit and cross the boat during high-speed G-force tacks and gybes before settling back into continuity in a new position.

Indeed, it has been so successful that Emirates Team New Zealand have been experimenting with changing to the one-helmsman-per-side arrangement, split between Peter Burling and Glenn Ashby. Watch out, this may come into play at some point.

Meanwhile, they have increasingly brought into play the tactical skills of Pietro Sibello, an Olympic 49er sailor, who is to be seen popping up to read the wind and the race course and feed back into the strategy.

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

HOW TO WATCH THE AMERICA’S CUP

America’s Cup racing is split into two parts throughout February and March and you can watch them all 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.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR IN THE AMERICA’S CUP RACES

1. The pre-starts. This America’s Cup has traditional upwind starts. Each team must enter the start box from opposite ends at the two minute mark. They jostle for the best position with the aim of hitting the line powered up exactly as the clock counts down to 0:00 – and in front of their opponent.

To get an advantage, each team will look to dodge, weave, box out their opponent, put a penalty put on them, or execute some other perfectly legitimate but edge-of-the-seat manoeuvre. These minutes can be among the most exciting of a whole race, and may set the tactics and playbook for all that follows so are not to be missed.

2. Mark roundings. Teams can round either one of two marks at the top or bottom of the course, so watch for splits here, close overlaps and other tactical manoeuvres. As the boats bear away at the upwind mark rounding they head into a power zone, speeding up rapidly. This is where we have seen the AC75s exceed 50 knots of speed and get unstable and into trouble with flight control.

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

3. Light winds. The AC75s have sometimes struggled to foil in winds of under 8 knots. When they come off their foils they suddenly go from supersonic to super-slow. Comparatively huge distances can open up or disappear in a flash if one team finds a puff and gets flying while the other is floundering. On light days, everything can turn inside out in seconds.

4. Strong winds. The same is true in big winds. Mistakes in crewing and sailhandling can be punishing when these massively loaded boats are fully powered up. When the winds are up, the pre-starts and mark roundings are likely war zones.

5. Match race tactics. Some thought the equivalent of hand-to-hand combat could never happen in the AC75s, but they have turned out to be agile and the crews surprisingly willing to throw them into some very close quarter spots. They are also able to mark opponents tack for tack and gybe for gybe round the course to defend a lead and deny their opponent a passing lane. Watch for these clever displays of aggression and stealth. And do listen in the live audio feed from each of the boats that gives big clues as to what each skipper and tactician is doing, thinking and planning.

A number of superyachts will be heading over to New Zealand to watch the races. 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.

INEOS Team UK Image courtesy of C. Gregory.

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 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.

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

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.

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.

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

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 reply came: “Your Majesty, there is no second.”

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf serves as the racing grounds 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 Alinghi’s victory was rotated round to the rear. A new base in carbon fibre was also made to replace the mahogany one.

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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