The America’s Cup is the oldest active trophy in international sport, predating the Modern Olympics by 45 years. Originally named the Royal Yacht Squadron Cup, it became known as the “America’s Cup” after the first yacht to win the trophy, the schooner America. The trophy remained in the hands of the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) from 1857 until 1983 when the Cup was won by the Royal Perth Yacht Club, with their yacht, Australia II, ending the longest winning streak in the history of sport.
In 1983 Australia II used wings on its keel to reduce drag and increase performance. To protect this innovation during the race its hull was shrouded in tarps and was only uncovered by scuba divers. These winged keels are now common on sailboats worldwide.
The America’s Cup has always been a showcase for innovation: the 1895 victor, Defender, for example, used aluminum, steel and bronze in the hull, an unheard-of combination at the time. And sailing in general, and high-level racing in particular, are no strangers to technology. But it has not been used at such an extreme scale before the 2010 America’s Cup competition, scheduled to start this week in Valencia, Spain between the current cup holder, Alinghi and USA-17.
2010 America’s Cup Innovations
The innovation that will be most apparent this year is the winged sail USA-17 has extending 223 feet above its hull in place of the traditional mast. This winged sail is basically the largest aviation wing around with built in sensors and nine wing flaps that allow the wing to be controlled very accurately.
The problem that the USA-17’s winged sail addresses is how to generate the most speed from the wind without flipping the boat. If you’ve ever sailed any boat you will know about this problem. It’s always been a balancing act to keep wind in the sail and head up into the wind as much as possible and still stay afloat. I’ve personally capsized my share of sail boats trying to maintain this balance.
Just as an airplane wing generates lift, the winged sail does the same although horizontally rather than vertically. By adjusting the nine wing flaps, the center of force can be shifted very rapidly up and down the wing. These flaps can be adjusted to maximize lift on the wing’s lower end, generating a lot of power, and to reduce it up top, generating less heeling, or tipping, force.
Alinghi also has its share on innovations on board. It has an extremely flexible mast, which allows it to change the shape of the sails, which are some of the largest ever made. These sails are a composite of carbon fiber and polyester film sheets designed to reinforce the sails where the stress is the greatest. Alinghi is also lighter that USA-17, which may give it an advantage in lighter winds, like those expected off of Valencia in the Mediterranean.
Both boats employ hundreds of sensors that allow precise control of sails, cable, stays and wings. Theses sensors are extremely important this year because USA-17 and Alinghi are loaded with compressive and tensile stresses and are made almost entirely of carbon fiber. If one of the cables or a big enough component were to break, the entire boat could come apart. At 30 knots of speed this would not be fun.