ROYAL NAVAL DOCKYARDS, BERMUDA—ORACLE TEAM USA has unveiled the sailing machine it will take into its defense of the America’s Cup this coming June: a sleek, aerodynamically sculpted foiling catamaran that is both a work of modern art and an engineering marvel.
Adhering to the new specs of this year’s competition, the new and improved yacht, unveiled Tuesday evening at ORACLE TEAM USA’s base here, is 15 meters (49.21 feet) long and weighs 2,400 kilograms (5,291 pounds). Those dimensions make it considerably shorter and lighter than the 72-foot colossus ORACLE TEAM USA sailed to a historic come-from-behind 9-8 victory over Emirates Team New Zealand in the last America’s Cup competition, on San Francisco Bay in September 2013.
These smaller, AC50 cats are easier to maneuver than their counterparts from four years ago. And as such it will be easier (and safer) for their crews to push them into daring, even precarious positions to gain a competitive edge, said Ian “Fresh” Burns, ORACLE TEAM USA’s director of performance.
This maneuverability is especially important given the fact that the racecourse for the upcoming 35th America’s Cup competition, on Bermuda’s Great Sound, will be much tighter and shorter than in previous competitions. Five teams will compete in May in qualifier races for the 35th Cup, with the winner taking on ORACLE TEAM USA in the finals in June.
When it came to AC-class boats, “it used to be that bigger is better,” said Jimmy Spithill, ORACLE TEAM USA’s skipper, who noted that 90-foot boats were the America’s Cup standard as recently as 2010. “But we were all just blown away by the performance of these new boats.”
Fly, Fly Away
Among the most impressive features of the new ORACLE TEAM USA catamaran are ones improved from the model four years ago. Namely, a carbon fiber wing sail that, while shorter than in 2013, still towers at 24 meters (78.74 feet); and improved under-craft hydrofoils or “daggerboards,” which help lift the yacht to glide above the water, reducing drag to near zero and increasing boat speeds.
The designers of the latest ORACLE TEAM USA boat worked with engineers from partner Airbus to apply aerodynamics, special materials, and structured load calculations similar to those for the wings and wing tips of commercial aircraft. The wing sail, now covered in a shrink-wrapped film, has flaps like those on an airplane wing, adjustable for different wind conditions up and down the wing. The result is a reduction of the wing sail’s drag by one-third to one-half compared with ORACLE TEAM USA’s boat for the America’s Cup finals four years ago, while producing about twice as much power, Burns said.
The partners also developed a new design and manufacturing process for the hydrofoils that reduced their weight and optimized their shape to maximize boat speed while safely supporting 10 to 15 tons of load.
Also critical is the boat’s human-powered hydraulics system, which controls the wing sail, foils, jib sail, and other parts of the craft. This system is especially important in allowing crew members to control the stability of the yacht in the more volatile foiling mode.
The improved responsiveness of the new control system, which borrows from the flight control system of the Airbus A350 XWB airliner, will make it possible for the first time for the ORACLE TEAM USA catamaran to fly above water for 100% of the race time, said Pierre-Marie Belleau, head of Airbus business development. Speeds approaching 60 mph are possible in the Bermuda races—about 15% faster than in 2013—as competing teams are aiming for 100% fly time as well. It’s gotten to the point, Burns said, where “the team that touches the water first will likely lose the race.”
Data, Data Everywhere
The ORACLE TEAM USA boat is also a data analytics machine. It’s estimated that every time the yacht and its crew set sail, they generate as much as a terabyte of data, much of it video, collected from as many as 1,000 sensors attached to myriad boat and body parts and fed into a powerful Oracle Exadata database for analysis.
For example, about 400 aerodynamic pressure sensors have been added to the boat’s wing sail. Those Airbus-developed sensors, called MEMs (micro-electro-mechanical systems), provide ORACLE TEAM USA with important information on the flow around the rigid sail under various conditions, helping the crew further optimize performance and maneuvers.
Sensors attached to the sailors themselves collect data on everything from heart rate, perspiration, and lactic acid levels to the number of hours they spend on the boat and the energy they exert grinding the winch handles that hoist and trim the sails and generate power. That data is then used to inform individual training and nutritional programs to maximize team member performance.
There’s only so much data analysis that can happen in real time during races, as the six sailors on board (down from 11, given the smaller boats) are preoccupied with their mental and physical tasks: split-second tactical decisions amid crashing waters and constant, back-breaking cranking of handles. Eyeing a few basic dashboards on ruggedized tablets connected to a small onboard Linux server is about all the sailors can handle, Burns said.
A longer-term big data challenge is mapping the unpredictable Atlantic Ocean winds that blow around Bermuda. It’s a challenge that ORACLE TEAM USA’s data experts are tackling using Oracle Exadata, Oracle Big Data Discovery, and Oracle R Advanced Analytics systems and tools.
In months of training on the Great Sound, the team already has collected millions of weather data points, from various sources, that need to be correlated. The goal: Predict wind patterns (within half a knot accuracy) all the way down to 100-meter or even 50-meter grids on the race course, in order to plot precise pathways and minimize maneuvers, Burns said.
Rah, Rah Cat Boom Bah
The Great Sound course will be narrower, shorter, and closer to shore than the ones in past America’s Cup competitions, which is one reason for the smaller, more maneuverable cats. Race organizers are promoting the close quarters as a plus for spectators, who will get an unprecedented up-close view of the races from vantage points on shore.
Skipper Spithill says he’s a big fan of the Great Sound’s “natural amphitheater” setting and relatively flat waters. Previous America’s Cup races would go miles offshore, for hours on end (“It was like watching paint dry,” he says), while each race in Bermuda (two a day in the finals) will last about 20 to 25 minutes.
“We’ll now be able to hear the people cheering, the crowds,” Spithill said. “And that’s a really cool part of it.”
The Bermuda venue represents the first time an America’s Cup team isn’t defending its title on its home territory. The America’s Cup, originally awarded in 1851, is the oldest ongoing international sporting competition and the crown jewel of yacht racing.