America’s Cup 2017: On board the most advanced boats in the world

In Bermuda, the speed limit is 35 kilometers per hour, although taxi drivers on the island estimate they can get up to 50 kph before the blue lights of the police come flashing.

Even with the speed increase, in the crystal blue waters that surround the island paradise in the North Atlantic Ocean, America’s Cup boats are traveling at twice that speed.

On land, pastel blue homes — the quest among the 65,000-strong population is to come up with a shade no one else has on the island — are often basic, understated, with bright white limestone roofs with grooves to collect much needed rainwater.

While out on the open water at Great Sound, which envelops the capital Hamilton and where the depth of water is no more than 20 meters, the most technologically advanced boats in the sailing of history are battling it out for Cup glory.

“It’s as much a design race as a sailing race,” says Sir Ben Ainslie, skipper of Land Rover BAR, bidding for the first British win in the 166-year history of sport’s oldest trophy.

“They’re the most technologically advanced boats I’ve sailed on or anyone has sailed on, and I never imagined a boat like this … no way.”

The boats are unimaginably quick. Traveling alongside it at 50 knots (92 kph) in a RIB (effectively an inflatable speedboat), you hold on tight, the base of the boat shuddering vigorously as it speeds along.

Fighter pilot

In contrast, Ainslie and his five other crew members seemingly effortlessly dance around their boat, which courtesy of its hydrofoils looks like it is literally flying over the water before turning at such an alarmingly sharp rate. Lesser mortals on board would be dumped into the water.

It is no surprise that Ainslie compares his role to that of “a fighter pilot or a Formula One driver.”

Under his grips is a bespoke steering wheel created by Land Rover engineers, molded to the shape of his hands and with paddles to enable him to steer the boat but also control the boat’s height in the water through the hydrofoils.

The foils work like a wing on an airplane by generating lift force when the boat reaches a speed of about 18 knots.

Amanda Hardingham is the head of human factors at Land Rover, with a team of 37 people working on products from concept to production, effectively thinking about the design and engineering of how you might sit in a car.

In the case of Ainslie, that is the steering, using technology from the new Discovery and the manner in which it changes gear for this particular sailing innovation.

“The level of accuracy and speed that Ben needs to respond, make changes rapidly, that’s win-lose points,” she explains.

“In the car, it’s for the global population from small women to large men, but this is bespoke for Ben, and gives him the precise control he needs.”

It is an innovation crew member David ‘Freddie’ Carr says “could truly be a race winner for us.”

Partnering with the vehicle manufacturer has helped BAR three-fold.

An engineer’s race

That is with aerodynamics and performance predictions (how aero affects the speed of the boat), the control systems on board for Ainslie and his crew, and machine learning, in effect using artificial intelligence to investigate sailing performance data.

Ainslie and the crew’s every movement is fed back to a following chase boat with engineers poring over the telemetry with more back at their temporary Bermudan base — in all 60 BAR staff are based here — as well as staff back in Portsmouth — another 60.

No stone is left unturned. There is a designated full-time meteorologist judging the ideal conditions to take out the boat, the R1, which was preceded by four previous test boats, while for the last six weeks, someone has been working on the boat 24 hours a day inside the team’s hangar.

David Powys, a veteran of four previous America’s Cup campaigns, is the base manager while his son Ed is part of the sailing team.

By Powys Sr’s estimation: “Data is the key, and it’s an engineer’s race for sure now.”

Laid out in the main hangar is the 300 kg wing. For such a technologically advanced creation, somewhat surprisingly, much of its inner layers are made up of folded paper covered in carbon fiber.

As cup holders, Team Oracle USA could argue their boat is technologically more advanced. But Dirk Kramers, who engineered that win in San Francisco in 2013, has jumped ship to head up the engineer side for BAR.

Involved in the America’s Cup since 1977 and a repeated winner of the event, Kramers says the design race to be the most technologically advanced will go down to the wire.

“There will be lots more changes between now and then,” explains the Dutch-American, so obsessed with boats he has a sailing holiday planned for when the Cup is over.

“We continue to learn and develop, and it’s about who can learn the fastest who will have the fastest boat.”

Danger on board

Warming to the theme of the development race, he compares the takeoff in design in America’s Cup, for which hydrofoiling is relatively new, to F1.

“For example, if you take the top speed on the straight at Monza,” he says, “in 2007 you’d go 350 kph, then the top end for America’s Cup sailing was about 13 knots.

“Now we’re comfortably going 45. If you took that forward in the same time in F1, you’d be breaking the speed of sound. That’s why it’s such an exciting time to be involved in the America’s Cup.”

By the time the boats first take to the water for the round-robin qualifiers, which begin on May 27, nearly 1,500 days will have been spent designing and engineering the boats.

Up to that point and as the racing begins, 190 sensors on the boat will feed back information, the 2.4 tonnes emanating 16,000 megabytes of raw data per sailing session.

Kramers admits there is “the temptation to look for a silver bullet” in the design race, which he is concerned is on the cusp of becoming too dangerous.

Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson’ lost his life in a training accident on board Artemis at the last America’s Cup in 2013, while BAR has the equivalent of a diving paramedic on board in Ben Williams in a chase boat. Williams also doubles up as a strength and conditioning coach.

And Kramers warns: “We’re starting to get speeds where we need to be careful. I’m getting very worried about it if we get much faster. Just trying walking on the top of your car at 55 mph and it doesn’t take a lot to fall off.”

There is conjecture about what percentage it is a design race and what percentage a sailing race depending on who you ask at the team.

Under the current rules, the boats are still essentially powered by humans, that oomph generated by grinders using effectively hand pedals turned rapidly. Rivals Emirates Team New Zealand have bicycles on board for their power generation.

On board, the grinders will generate 1,200 watts of power during a race, which will typically last 20 minutes.

Invasion of 200,000

One of the crew, Nick Hutton, a grinder and trimmer — a dual role he likens to the winter sport biathlon, says: “You need human input or else no would would watch it.

“Otherwise you might as well have Robot Wars in a car park. You go too far with the technology, and it’s not about the people anymore.”

That design race is one that Carr describes as a “House of Cards,” Machiavellian sub plots emanating about what their rivals are up to.

Emirates Team New Zealand are just across a miniscule stretch of water, Groupama Team France are neighbors to BAR, while Team Oracle USA are no more than 100 meters away.

And Carr says there are things “we know about now as a team we didn’t know six weeks ago,” the key being to peak come race day.

On board, gone are the winches and ropes, those instead replaced by cutting edge hydraulics.

At BAR, the push to make marginal gains is everywhere. Even at the urinals, there is a litmus paper test for sailors to check whether they are hydrated enough, while the gym where the crew have two sessions a day have all the equipment of any modern day, state-of-the-art facility.

With the night shift recently introduced, as Carr puts it, “the boat is now never not worked on.”

The race is on, the island boasting reminders at every turn that the America’s Cup is coming to town. An invasion of 200,000 people is expected with cruise ships brought in to house many of them.

There is a saying in Bermuda that everyone has a boat, but the only eyes will be on BAR, Team Oracle USA and the rest of the America’s Cup fleet.