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Has the Cup gone off the rails?

Have the America’s Cup designs reached a point where they are “too big, too fast, too light” to be safe? No, I do not believe that this is the case.

AC72s are powered primarily by a rigid wingsail and are capable of heart-pounding speeds.

In fact, the AC72 is rather small when compared to the majority of vessels that have raced for the America’s Cup throughout its history, with only the 12 Meter class being smaller. The vast majority of Cup boats have been considerably larger in size.

Are they too fast? For what, racing? No, I do not believe that they are too fast, although they are one of the faster type of boats used in the Cup, matched only by the vessels used in AC33. Are they too light? Again, for what? The boats seem largely to have held together whilst sailing and there have been only a handful of failures. And given that these boats are effectively prototypes that isn’t too bad a record at present, given the limited sailing time.

I don’t think any of us are really in a position to truly answer these questions, as we have yet to see these boats racing properly, and, to date, there have been no issues during the informal trial racing that has taken place between pairs of teams. The two capsizes we have seen have taken place during training and, in both cases, when the teams had decided to cease sailing for the day and head back to shore.

Rather than questioning the AC72 I think that whether the AC72 is appropriate in its current form for racing on San Francisco Bay in July, August, September — when afternoon sea breezes often exceed 30 knots — is probably the question that should be asked. Originally the class had two wings available, and if fitted with the smaller wing the boats may have been easier to handle than they are currently.

Having said this, I think you have to look at what has been achieved by Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa over the New Zealand summer. They have safely handled significantly stronger winds and rough seas without major problems and managed to sail over very long training periods using, in ETNZ’s case, every day available for sailing under the rules. They have shown that it is possible to sail these boats reliably and safely. We have yet to see if this is also possible when the boats are being used in serious racing.

Right from the beginning of this Cup cycle, teams have known that durability and reliability would be every bit as important as speed to be successful in winning the Louis Vuitton Challenge and, ultimately, the America’s Cup. The challengers have been very conscious of this and acutely aware that they have to race through a period of the year where the wind will be stronger than when Oracle Team USA have to defend the Cup. I also have to say that, given the AC72 as the weapon of choice and San Francisco as the venue, all of the teams have been very conscious of safety during the planning, design and building of the boats and had in place procedures and protocol for handling situations ashore, on the boats, and on the tenders and guest boats.

There is always danger in sailing, and many people have been injured or died whilst sailing on a wide variety of yachts and powerboats — on the oceans, in the harbor and on lakes and ponds. There are known risks, and everybody should do whatever is possible to minimize them. Not wishing to understate the tragedy of a family losing a husband and father, we should always take stock and keep the big picture in perspective.

The writer says the AC72s are basically prototypes.

And is Larry Ellison’s vision of a NASCAR-style Cup with breakneck speeds and behemoth lightweight raceboats a workable model for the regatta? One of the great privileges of winning the America’s Cup is that you get to make the rules for the next one, so long as it remains within the bounds of the Deed of Gift or is mutually agreed upon. So it is not really for us to say whether the format for the current Cup is correct or even workable — it is what we have, and we have to get on with it.

There is much talk about traditional Cup events, with lots of challengers and national teams, and frankly most of it is rubbish. The greater part of the Cup tradition is about two very wealthy people pitting their might against each other using hired professional sailors. The Cup is contested between yacht clubs, not nations.

In many ways this current Cup cycle is far more traditional than those of the recent 40 years of multi-challenger events. Of course, the stated aim for this cycle was to make the Cup more accessible to both challengers and the public and to attract a whole new audience. So far this has failed in terms of the accessibility for many more challengers and making the Cup more affordable. We are yet to see whether it will succeed in generating wider public interest, but certainly images of spectacular capsizes and broken boats will attract viewers. The issue is whether that is the right reason.

In my view, much of the new look of America’s Cup 34 is about establishing a professional sailing circuit of large catamarans, a vision championed by Oracle Team USA CEO Russell Coutts and Artemis Racing CEO Paul Cayard after the last Cup. In that way the America’s Cup has been hijacked as a vehicle to try and achieve that end goal, but the America’s Cup will survive all of these bumps in the road.

My personal view is that yachting as a sport is trying way too hard to make itself more marketable to television and, in the process, is cheapening the sport, not just the circus that is America’s Cup, but also the way the sailing Olympics have been compromised to make them more viewable. For me, it has taken the pinnacle of the sport and turned it into a sideshow, but that is just me and maybe I am too old now.

The fact is that sailing is a participation sport, not something that will ever be particularly interesting to watch. The truth is that it is bloody boring to watch — the joy is in taking part.

Brett Bakewell-White is the director and design principal of Bakewell-White Yacht Design, of Auckland, New Zealand, and was lead designer and technical director for Team Korea, White Tiger Challenge — the fourth challenger for this Louis Vuitton Challenge Cup. The team had to withdraw its challenge after failing to raise enough money.

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See related article:

- Safety in question after capsize of Cup catamaran

July 2013 issue