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Capt. Nat would have approved

Oracle Team USA truly did accomplish one of sport’s greatest comebacks. Keeping the Cup when they were down 8-1 was like a winning touchdown pass with five seconds remaining or a grand slam to rally when you’re four runs behind. Americans love an underdog, especially one with the grit and skill to overcome big odds.

Halsey C. Herreshoff

There were surprises in the buildup to the 34th America’s Cup. The United States and New Zealand collaborated in producing one-design 45-foot catamarans for preliminary racing. This helped level the field after Oracle won the 33rd Cup with a trimaran in 2010. But why did the New Zealand effort jump ahead both in technological terms and sailing skills to sweep the early races? The most extraordinary part of New Zealand’s gains involved its development of large-catamaran foiling. Once proven, sailing on hydrofoils became a must, as they imparted an additional 15 knots in some cases.

Another surprise was how quickly Oracle caught on, matching the Kiwis’ foiling abilities and, in race 19, showing vast superiority in speed and consistency. This followed advances in foil shape, structure and control, which was perfected using aircraft computer technology. Split-second changes in speed, heel and pitch preclude relying on human reflexes for optimal foil changes.

Another vital element not yet sufficiently appreciated in these amazing boats is the wings, which provide most of the driving power. Observed are variations in plan form area distribution, vertical twist and details of wing segment intersections and their respective attitudes. Sailboat wings are certainly in their infancy and will become more sophisticated if design and experimentation continue. Much can be drawn from airplane technology, but more experience with the rigors of sailing with wings is needed. So far, a speed of 51.8 mph has been achieved. Why not 60 or faster?

It is appropriate to speculate about what my grandfather, Capt. Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, would have thought of the 2013 contenders. Capt. Nat not only designed and built yachts that defended the Cup six times, but he also introduced catamarans in the United States and procured a patent for a multihull in 1876. If still with us, he would certainly approve of the design and performance of the winged hydrofoil craft. (He might even have designed and built them himself!)

Before the 34th America’s Cup, I predicted there would be a lopsided parade of catamarans of wildly different speeds on the racecourse. Instead, AC 34 provided some of the most competitive and exciting racing of the modern era. Millions were thrilled by observing directly in San Francisco or through the great television coverage.

So what now? Surely Larry Ellison, Russell Coutts, Jimmy Spithill and about 130 individuals who pulled off the amazing victory desire to replicate the catamaran triumph of San Francisco. But there are problems, including safety and money.

Faster and faster in foil-supported catamarans indeed would be more exciting but also more dangerous. And Oracle has demonstrated its willingness to spend whatever it takes to win, but will any challenger be willing to spend more than $100 million to compete for the Cup? New Zealand is showing reluctance to fund such an expensive quest again. Luna Rossa (Italy) and Artemis (Sweden) challenged with too little, too late, proving that modest efforts do not stand a chance.

England, Spain and others sat out AC 34, given the financial and human investment required. So the dilemma for Oracle is finding a group of competitors with the skill and financial backing for a Cup quest.

Is there a viable solution? One idea afloat is to reduce the catamarans to 55 feet. Also under consideration is continuing with 72-foot catamarans, but with tight cost-cutting provisions in the race protocol. This won’t work. For every rule, there is a loophole for clever designers. That’s the America’s Cup tradition. Most ruled limits can be overcome by exploiting loopholes.

Why not go to magnificent state-of-the-art sloops with large crews — one per competitor? Expensive, yes, but nowhere near as costly as the development of high-tech catamarans. Long courses and the application of classic match-race strategies would evolve. In this regard, think back to the 1903 Cup defender Reliance, one of the many from the drafting board and manufacture of my grandfather. Reliance was 144 feet, with 16,160 square feet of sail and a crew of 66, plus six in the afterguard.

There is a parallel between this bold, legendary winner of 1903 and the success of the AC72s 110 years later. Both were dominant to an extent never before realized. Both pushed the boundaries of naval architecture. Both brought danger and great expense.

This is the America’s Cup. Let it be preserved as unique but made practical enough to survive. Let’s emphasize grandeur and create a format for the best exercise of match racing.

Halsey C. Herreshoff competed in 20 America’s Cup races as bowman or navigator in the defenses of 1958, 1974, 1980 and 1983. He is the founder of the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, which honors the champions of the Cup.

See related stories:

- Velocity made good

- Where were the American sailors?

- Is this model sustainable?

- The game has changed

Devember 2013 issue