Battle of the Boats – America's Cup tech explained

By Peter Griffin 05/05/2014

The painful memories of last year’s America’s Cup have receded for many, but questions remain over how exactly Oracle fought its way back from being down 8 – 1 to win the Cup and embarrass Team New Zealand – and by default, New Zealand itself.

Was Team New Zealand simply out-spent and out-designed by a syndicate backed by billionaire Larry Ellison? What exactly did Oracle do in the middle of the tournament to so drastically improve their boat’s performance upwind? Is there any evidence that Oracle cheated?

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Neil Wilkinson and Andy Kensington

Over the next three weeks, lead designers from America’s Cup racing syndicates Oracle Team USA and Team New Zealand, will travel the country to answer all of these questions and more as part of a lecture series hosted by the Institute of Professional Engineers.

Don’t expect any shocking revelations, but the lecture will be a great opportunity to learn more about the engineering of these cutting-edge boats and how minor modifications can change the game mid-tournament and even mid-race.

Oracle designer Neil Wilkinson and Team New Zealand designer Andy Kensington, both Kiwis, were on TVNZ’s Breakfast show this morning to give a taste of what to expect from the lectures.

Asked what Oracle did to so radically improve its performance after loosing successive races, Wilkinson responded:

“The foiling system didn’t change in any significant way. But we were surprised… at our weakness upwind. Everyone was working very hard to mode the boat better upwind.”

Whatever “mode the boat better” actually means will hopefully be teased out by inquisitive audience members. Many Kiwis remain convinced that Oracle undertook some radical engineering feat to, literally overnight, improve the boat’s performance. But the narrative out of Oracle has been that it was simply a few tweaks and better sailing that made the difference. We may never really know.

One way to eliminate the chance of dee-pocketed syndicates resorting to technology to gain an edge over rivals would be to make all syndicates race in boats of exactly the same design. Andy Kensington said that the next Volvo round the world yacht race will employ this approach for the 65 foot boats that will be involved. A draft set of design rules for the next America’s Cup is out for consultation, but while the boats may be smaller and require less crew, Wilkinson suggested the type of standardisation that will happen in the Volvo race won’t fly in the America’s Cup. It will still be hydro-foiling fast boats with numerous teams working to out-engineer each other. Kensington admitted that this is actually what drives the engineers.

“It will still be a combination of technology and sailing skill,” said Wilkinson.

And what role does money play in separating the performance of the boats?

Wilkinson: A big wallet certainly helps, but at the end of the day its a tremendously complex team effort.”

The dates for the IPENZ Battle of the Boats lectures:

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 11.27.04 AMWHANGAREI – 6 May 2014 – 6.30pm
Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North Performance Conference & Expo Centre, Rust Avenue, Vinetown

TAURANGA – 8 May 2014 – 6.30pm
Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club, 90 Keith Allen Drive

DUNEDIN – 13 May 2014 – 6.30pm
Maurice Joel Theatre, Otago Boys’ High School, 2 Arthur Street

NEW PLYMOUTH – 15 May 2014 – 6.30pm
Quality Hotel Plymouth International, Corner of Courtney and Leach Streets

AUCKLAND – 20 May 2014 – 6.30pm
Dorothy Winstone Centre, Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, 16 Howe St, Newton

NAPIER – 22 May 2014 – 6.30pm
Napier War Memorial Conference Centre, 48 Marine Parade, Bluff Hill

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