Skip to main content

Shock and awe in a 90-foot trimaran

BMW Oracle’s monster multihull is a marvel of innovation and technology, capable of mind-bending speeds

The crew looked like they were preparing to jump out of a plane, clad in jumpsuits and carrying helmets with intercoms. But instead of parachutes, they wore PFDs, because they were going sailing.

The yacht takes multihull design to the extreme.

The outfits were necessary because shouting into the wind and across large distances simply doesn’t work. At least not at the speeds they were about to reach, when a crash could cause severe bodily injury. Is this the future of sailing? Will it turn the America’s Cup inside out? These were just two questions that came to mind when I did a walkabout on BMW Oracle Racing 90 two weeks after it was launched in Anacortes, Wash., this fall.

By any standard, this is one of the most technically advanced and fastest racing yachts ever built. It’s an all-out effort that spared no cost and no effort to push the envelope in the hope it will one day help BMW Oracle, the lone U.S. syndicate left in the America’s Cup game, win back yachting’s most coveted trophy. If it does, which is far from certain at the time of this writing, it would put the most important feather on the sailing cap of software tycoon Larry Ellison, the team’s chief executive, who doesn’t like to finish second, whether it’s in the executive board room or on the race course.

I’ve sailed big, fast multihulls before, but that didn’t nearly prepare me for this machine. Someone said it was built as a “defensive measure” against the current Cup defender Alinghi, whom BMW Oracle has sued for the right to become the Challenger of Record. To me, it looked more like an offensive weapon designed and built to force the enemy’s hand. A nautical version of shock and awe.

Superlatives redefined

The trimaran’s dimensions are staggering: 90 feet on the waterline and 90 feet of beam, 100 feet of overall length. That’s the equivalent of three tennis courts or the infield of a baseball diamond. Although bigger multihulls have been built for long-distance racing (Banque Populaire V at 143 feet, PlayStation 2 at 125 feet), none has had more horsepower per pound than BMW Oracle Racing 90. The boat carries 8,500 square feet of sail upwind and a maximum of 12,000 square feet off the breeze.

The 158-foot carbon mast has built-in cameras that help monitor the sail shape. Using hydraulic pumps operated by the grinders, it is canted windward to increase the effective sail area under heel and reduce the tendency of pitchpoling, which would have catastrophic consequences on a boat of this size. The slim amas have curved daggerboards that produce extra lift. The gigantic main daggerboard in the center hull is fitted with an adjustable trim tab for the same purpose. Skipping across the nets that cover the space between amas and center hull is a challenge for a flat-footed landlubber, even when the boat is tied up at the dock.

The crew has to be strong and sure-footed to grind, trim or dash to the bows to do foredeck chores. Only the helmsman, perched on a platform on the aft beam, is static. During tacks or jibes, he has to let go of his wheel while the boat is turning and sprint along the catwalk to the other wheel, which is a good 15 yards away. While he does that, the backup skipper is steering.

Speed, redefined

A 90-foot multihull is a handful, even at the dock. Six RIBs had to push and pull hard to get the monster off the dock, which was perpendicular to the brisk breeze. Once the sailing venue in the Rosario Strait was reached, the wind dropped to a zephyr, but the trimaran nevertheless zoomed along, easily going twice or triple the true wind speed. It was chased by a small flotilla of tenders, press boats, and a 60-foot mother ship with a medical emergency room and a well-sorted repair shop on board. And it fastidiously followed in the wake of a “log-spy” that went ahead a few hundred yards at full throttle to warn the sailing crew of floating detritus that could sink the boat if hit at high speed.

“It takes a long time to get used to the acceleration and the enormous loads,” says BMW Oracle CEO Russell Coutts, a three-time America’s Cup victor for Team New Zealand and the Swiss Alinghi syndicate. “Six, seven knots of wind are enough to reach blistering speeds, and doing 20 knots or more on one hull requires caution. Compared to this, the Extreme 40 [catamarans] are toys.”

On this day, however, the helm belonged to Franck Cammas, one of the world’s top multihull skippers. He has won five ORMA world championships and three Transat Jacques Vabre races and currently holds both the 24-hour distance record (794 nautical miles) and the fastest time across the Atlantic sailed from west to east (4 days, 3 hours). He was brought on as a consultant to teach monohull sailors like Coutts and backup helmsman James Spithill the finer points of going fast on three hulls. But even Cammas concedes this is a new ballgame for him.

“It’s the fastest boat I ever sailed in light air,” he says. “The challenge is finding the compromise between maximum speed and safety.”

Since nobody has sailed such an extreme boat before, technology must help gauge the limits. Sensors are installed around the boat to record the loads, and they even sound an alarm if one component is getting too close to safe working load. “Scary. We must take it step by step,” says Cammas, who thinks 40 knots or more is possible. Can it go offshore? With a shorter mast and smaller sails perhaps, he reckons. “But it won’t be comfortable.”

Comfort was not an issue as the giant trimaran tore across the calm waters of Rosario Strait. Cammas took it easy, yet the center hull lifted out of the water as the boat easily reached speeds in the mid-20-knot range and more, strapped in on every point of sail like an iceboat rocketing across a frozen lake.

When craft becomes science

Since large multihulls are a French domain, it’s no surprise BMW Oracle sought help across the Pond, bringing on Marc Van Peteghem and Vincent Lauriot Prévost as naval architects, along with a platoon of other Frenchmen, steeped in megamultihull design and construction. They were part of a large team coordinated by veteran New Zealand designer Mike Drummond. It took some 80,000 man-hours to build the boat between December 2007 and its Aug. 28 launch.

The construction shed was as clean as a hospital operating room, and the carbon parts were not built, but crafted to the highest standards. The center hull was fashioned from four pieces that had to fit together with the tolerance of a few hundredths of a millimeter.

“If you put seven of BMW’s 7-series limousines on the tip of the center daggerboard, it won’t break,” says Thomas Hahn, a structural engineer who used to work on the body design of BMW cars before joining the team in 2004. “Money is no object. If it isn’t as light and strong as possible, the sailors will grouse.”

Solid carbon fiber and carbon-honeycomb composites are the materials of choice. “We used 6.5 times the carbon fiber that goes into a last-generation IACC monohull,” says Mark “Tugboat” Turner, one of the construction managers. Janicki Industries in nearby Sedro-Wooley, Wash., a company that specializes in high-precision milling, assisted with fairings and ama construction. The 158-foot profile mast was manufactured by Hall Spars in Bristol, R.I., and shipped across the country in two pieces.

An uncertain future

How a race between two such extreme multihulls would look like is anyone’s guess. “If these boats race a long course, they might not see each other when they split tacks,” Spithill surmises. “So [navigation] software and [calling] laylines are extremely important.” Mistakes or breakage, he points out, would have grave consequences.

But BMW Oracle isn’t there yet, and it is far from certain the team will reach that point, because it is engaged in a legal battle with Alinghi, the Cup holder, to determine the Challenger of Record for the next America’s Cup. The Supreme Court of New York last summer ruled the challenger is the Spanish syndicate Club Náutico Español de Vela. Golden Gate Yacht Club of San Francisco, which BMW Oracle represents, has appealed and expects a decision by March.

Meanwhile, the Swiss and a group of 11 potential challengers, sans BMW Oracle, discussed the protocol for the next America’s Cup tentatively scheduled for 2010, albeit on monohulls. The Dec. 15 entry deadline for such an event is months before the New York court is expected to resolve BMW Oracle’s appeal. Will it drop the lawsuit and join the others? In this case, the next Cup will be a traditional event with mano-a-mano match racing, and Ellison’s trimaran would become a footnote in history.

If the scales of justice tip in BMW Oracle’s favor, a multihull challenge could happen in 2010, according to Tom Ehman, the syndicate’s rules expert. It would be a so-called Deed of Gift race. The latest such race was the infamous “catamaran defense,” staged off San Diego in 1988, when Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes cat trounced Team New Zealand’s megamonohull. Alinghi reportedly is building a big multihull, but hadn’t launched it at press time.

Could Ellison drop out? “Never say never in this business,” Ehman says. The Cup’s history has shown time and again that anything is possible. Even a trimaran with shock-and-awe appeal.

Editor’s note: After completing the initial sea trials in Anacortes, the boat was transferred to San Diego for more light-air sailing from October to the end of November. After the holiday break, the shore and sailing teams move to Auckland, New Zealand, to compete in the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series Jan. 31- Feb. 14, a regatta sailed in the old IACC monohulls.

BMW Oracle Racing 90 Specs

LOA: 100 feet

LWL: 90 feet

BEAM: 90 feet

SAIL AREA: 5,000-square-foot main,

3,500-square-foot jib,

7,000-square-foot gennaker/Code Zero

MAST HEIGHT: 158 feet

DESIGN: BMW Oracle/VPLP (naval architects)

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.