Burns Fallow interview: 21 years of America’s Cup sail design

Black Magic and the 3DI revolution

First America’s Cup win for New Zealand

With 28 years’ experience at North Sails, two J-class yacht projects and five America’s Cup campaigns under his belt, it’s fair to say Burns Fallow knows a thing or two about sail design.

The New Zealand native was one of the driving forces behind Team New Zealand’s first triumph in 1995, but his involvement with the Kiwi team goes further back than that: “One of the first projects I was involved in, in late 1993, was commissioning a wind tunnel specifically for testing sails at the University of Auckland.

“We recognised pretty early on that we needed a specialist facility to simulate the conditions we see on the water, because the wind tunnels that were around at the time weren’t suited for that.”

In addition to the extensive research and development, Fallow explained that Team New Zealand was an early adopter of new materials.

“Up until 1995 sails were built out of flat panels of sailcloth sewn together. The big revolution that really came to fruition in 1995 was the one-piece string sail technology that we now know as 3DL. Most other teams were torn between keeping on developing panel sails and investing in 3DL. We were one of only two teams that said from day one: ‘We’re going to put all our effort into this new technology.’”

This all came to fruition in San Diego, when NZL-32 Black Magic trounced the Defender Sail America and their boat USA-36 Young America 5-0 in the 29th America’s Cup to bring the Auld Mug to New Zealand for the first time.

Picture: North Sails archive

NZL-60 brings in new blood

New Zealand's successful defence of the America’s Cup

By the time the 2000 America’s Cup came around, the benefits of 3DL were widely recognised, so Team New Zealand set about refining the way this was incorporated into their design.

“It was very much just a refinement process,” Fallow added. “We came up with a new rig design called the Millennium rig, which had X-stays, and in sails we were more aggressive in the materials we used. We used more carbon fibre than we’d used in 1995. You would call that more of an evolutionary campaign than a revolutionary campaign.”

The change of venue also informed the sail design for the 2000 America’s Cup, with the heavy air of Auckland presenting a different challenge to the light air of San Diego.

As Team New Zealand’s NZL-60 completed a second consecutive clean sweep with a 5-0 win over Prada Challenge's boat Luna Rossa, the Kiwis looked set for an extended period of dominance.

“We brought a lot of new blood in, both sailors and designers, who then formed the core of the team through the next decade,” Fallow explained.

Picture: North Sails archive

Risks fail to pay off for NZL-82

Team Alinghi takes the America’s Cup to Europe

The emergence of Ernesto Bertarelli’s Team Alinghi posed several problems for Team New Zealand in the run-up to the 2003 America’s Cup. Not only had they built a formidable racing yacht in SUI-64, but they had recruited many key members of the Team New Zealand team, including skipper Russell Coutts.

“In hindsight, we felt we needed the golden bullet to be able to win the America’s Cup,” Fallow continued. “So we ended up with things like the Hula, which was a bizarre device that was designed to cheat the rule. It was basically a big blister on the back of the boat to trick the water into thinking the boat was longer. Our interpretation was that it was legal, but the measurers said it could only touch the hull in a certain area, and it ended up being very compromised.”

Other risky design changes on NZL-82 included a high modulus steel rigging, which was prone to rusting, but even much smaller elements caused problems for Team New Zealand.

“We were tight on budget, so to save money I’d re-used ring at the tack that we’d used before,” Fallow explained. “We blew a sail up at the beginning of the first race, we failed to finish two races, and we broke every spar. So although the record book shows that we were second in the 2003 America’s Cup, we were probably fifth or sixth. If we’d been in a challenger series we would have struggled to make the semi-final.”

Picture: North Sails archive

Going for broke with NZL-92

Grant Dalton comes on board

After the disappointment of 2003, it was clear that Team New Zealand needed to shake things up in order to regain the America’s Cup and the appointment of Grant Dalton as CEO was a big step in the right direction, according to Fallow:

“Monetarily we were much stronger, the design was much more methodical, and overall we had a much more structured approach to the whole campaign.”

The Defender Team Alinghi had not been idle, however, and their redesigned sail plan led Team New Zealand to undertake an extensive testing programme for NZL-92.

“We built our two boats much earlier, rather than delivering them very late as we had done in 2003,” Fallow said. “The smallest thing can cause a failure so we spent a day in Auckland about six months before the race going out deliberately trying to break things to see what would break first. That day we broke four spinnakers and three spinnaker poles just to see where the weak links were.”

However, Team New Zealand’s 2007 challenge ultimately proved in vain, with a 5-2 loss to Team Alinghi's SUI-100 in Valencia, and Fallow happily admits that the best boat won.

“We won the challenger event reasonably comfortably. It was a magnificent event, well run and well imagined. But Alinghi were stronger tactically and significantly stronger in design. They were probably equal downwind, but quicker than us upwind.”

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Aotearoa and the advent of foiling

Flying yachts break the mould

Following victory in the 2010 Deed of Gift match, Oracle Team USA got to set the rules for the 2013 America’s Cup and as early as February 2011, Team New Zealand knew this was going to be a completely different type of event.

“Everyone remembers the spectacular sailing of 2013, but for designers it all happened in 2011,” Fallow explained. “The foiling wasn’t actually intended in the rule, Oracle thought they’d written the rule so that you could not foil, but we found a way.”

The foils were intended to generate lift and make the boat lighter, but the research and development at Team New Zealand led to the advent of the flying catamarans that have become an iconic symbol of the America’s Cup.

“I remember the conversation we had: ‘If you lift 30% of the weight of the boat then it’s going to go this much faster, but if we go to 70% there are some risks.’ Then someone just said: ‘What about 100%?’ I remember it as clear as day: ‘What about 100%?’ We went from having predicted maximum speeds of 32-33 knots to mid 40s.”

This concept was ultimately a game changer for the America’s Cup, culminating in the dramatic 9-8 victory for Oracle Team USA in San Francisco. Despite losing out by the slenderest of margins, Fallow still describes AC72 Aotearoa as an “incredible” machine.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons / Donan Raven

Bermuda and beyond

The future of the America's Cup

With the strict rules for the 2017 leaving little room for sail innovation, Fallow could be forgiven for being pessimistic about the future of design in the America’s Cup. However, he sees plenty of room for improvement in other key areas:

“It’s not flattening off, big changes are still happening. I don’t know what the next big jump is, but I suspect it’s not materials, I think it’s going to be in software systems. You still need sailors, but there’s going to be a big change in how the systems react to what they do.”

Meanwhile, his work with North Sails keeps him searching for the next big innovation, with computer aided design a key tool in this: “We spend an awful lot of time modelling our sails on the computer — we design a sail, put a structure on it, blow wind across it and then trim it, all inside the computer. That shows us where hotspots of stretch and distortion are.

“It’s got to be really strong. That’s probably the biggest misconception, people have about sail design — they just think of a sail as being like a bed sheet. They don’t appreciate how much force is being generated by sails and how much force these boats need to get to the speeds they do.”

Picture: Youtube / EmTeamNZ

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