Why are catamarans so fast

America's Cup : Sailors are faster than the wind

Ballet with the highest precision. This is how it goes on the "USA 17". Every crew member has his or her task, every move has to be right: The last phase before the start is about sailing perfection. Only in this way will it be enough for the cup defense, for another triumph. The team's choreography is impressive: while helmsman Jimmy Spithill is still circling around the turning mark, two crew members are already spurting over to the other side of the catamaran in order to squeeze the power out of their muscles on the winches.

In the past, the strong men at the winches were there to lash the ropes for the sails. But that was before the sailing revolution. Today they generate hydraulic pressure so that the helmsman can raise or lower the boat higher out of the water by pressing a button on the steering wheel. Today there are no more sails fluttering on the mast, now a 24-meter-high fixed aircraft wing protrudes into the air, with only the rear wing flap adjustable. And there is no longer sailing, but rather flown. The swords of the two-hull boat, called foils, provide buoyancy; With their aerodynamically sophisticated profile, they lift the boat out of the water.

“Whoever flies first has won,” says Thomas Hahn, who did not study aviation by chance. The 45-year-old engineer with messy brown hair and round glasses has accompanied and promoted the revolution from the start. The Bavarian, who works for the car manufacturer BMW, the technology partner of the US team, is one of the masterminds for the spectacle that will soon fascinate people around the world. The America’s Cup has always been a demonstration of what is technically feasible. Huge, over-rigged yachts have been fighting for the ugly silver jug ​​since 1851, which is considered the most valuable sailing trophy in the world.

Technical progress and new materials

Every technical advance in weight-saving materials or new sail cuts were used to become faster. With modest success. "In a hundred years all innovations have made the yachts at the America 'Cup only four knots faster," says Hahn, but in the past six years "the boats have become 40 knots (60 km / h) faster".

What that means can be seen on the Great Sound in Bermuda. The water hammers against the hull of the 500 hp support boat, which is approaching the "USA 17" at full speed - and is still left behind. With a peculiar buzz, the 15-meter-long boat chases past the observer - a strange, staggered-looking tripod that hovers two meters above the waves. The hull is slightly inclined forwards in order to achieve the best aerodynamics, the swords called "foils" under the slim hull hold the boat in the air.

Freed from the water pressure, the catamaran can reach speeds of up to 100 kilometers per hour - almost three times as fast as the speed limit of 35 km / h on the leisurely Bermuda. When the battle for the America’s Cup begins soon, it will of course be over on land with the tranquil serenity of the 65,000 islanders. Then the British Crown Colony, located two hours by plane from New York in the middle of the Atlantic, is the center of the sailing world for several weeks.

Already now everything on the island is under the sign of the sailing summit; from the tiny airport to the stores in the capital, Hamilton, the event is promoted. For the decision of the Oracle boss Larry Ellison not to defend the cup in his native San Francisco, but in Bermuda, the investments in the infrastructure and the tax exemption were central. In addition, all teams can set up their bases next to each other in the port - as in Formula 1. Directly in front of it is the regatta course in the Great Sound, a bay perfectly protected against the violent Atlantic waves. Above all, Bermuda's location is ideal for TV marketing: thanks to the moderate time difference, the races can be received in the US and Europe during the busy broadcasting times.

Place of the super rich

The cost of living on the palm-green island with a subtropical climate, turquoise water and fine sandy beaches are extremely high because almost everything is imported. That hardly bothered the many super-rich who have huge villas here, from the eccentric US billionaire Ross Perot to the Italian ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. If you want to settle, you have to bring at least three million euros in assets. Even if there is no unemployment, normal people often only have several jobs to support their families in view of the high cost of living.

In the harbor below the mighty fortifications, an important naval base for the British for 200 years, the tension can already be felt. Not only the Oracle team resides in the Royal Naval Dockyards. Four of the five challengers have also been around for a long time. The New Zealanders who were also favored, however, only arrived recently; they preferred training at home. Also because of secrecy. Because in the spectacle, in which the Oracle team alone invests around 100 million dollars, nothing is left to chance. After each training session, the US boat is therefore lifted out of the water and disappears behind large hall gates.

The Oracle team, which in 2013 in the Bay of San Francisco caught New Zealanders leading with 8: 1 wins with a sensational finish with 9: 8 wins, has been training in Bermuda for a year. The winner takes it all, says the America's Cup - the winner can determine the place of defense and the rules. Therefore, all challengers in the strictly regulated boat class have to compete with a total of six crew members.

Races last 20 minutes

It is an impressive picture: at a speed of about 15 knots, the boat lifts out of the water and then accelerates abruptly, held in the air only in front of the L-shaped curved foils. The goal for helmsman Jimmy Spithill as well as for his competitors is clear: if possible, never fall out of the flight phase, because otherwise the water resistance brutally brakes the fuselage and can cause serious damage. This is a job that demands maximum concentration from the helmsman.

Jimmy Spithill, who won the cup for Larry Ellison, founder of the software company Oracle in 2010 and 2013, is considered one of the most ingenious helmsmen in the world. The 37-year-old's instinct is crucial. Finding the right load limit is the big task. "If you are too careful you lose," says Thomas Hahn, "if you drive too aggressively, you also lose." The designers at BMW have therefore developed a multifunction steering wheel based on their experience in motor racing. This allows you to keep a precise course and at the same time adjust the foils and rudder blades with various buttons. Former Formula 1 driver Alex Zanardi helped develop the steering wheels. The Italian, who lost both legs in a serious accident at the Lausitzring in 2001, contributes his experience from racing as a consultant to Oracle and BMW to tinker with the flow dynamics.

Shortly before the start of the races, the nervousness increases. Every action is watched by the competition. A few days ago the "USA 17" capsized spectacularly. Apparently there were problems with the trim of the lift foils. Even if the damage was supposedly minor - the psychological factor plays an important role. The superiority of a Jimmy Spithill can vanish so quickly, the accident signals to the competition.

The challengers will first determine the defending champion's opponent in elimination races. This requires seven victories in each lap - so there can be up to 13 races per lap. The Oracle team will only be there in the final. The races are only 20 minutes long, also with a view to better marketing on television. In addition, it is said that even the best fit crew members could not endure longer races because of the extreme physical strain.

Although enormous forces act on the hull, the "wings" and the foils, the entire boat with the six-person crew may only weigh three tons. That is a tenth of the monohulls still used at the 2007 Cup off Valencia. A technical balancing act that requires extremely lightweight construction. It doesn't always end well. A few days ago the entire wing overturned on the "Artemis", the boat of the Swedish challengers. Tinkerers like Thomas Hahn therefore play a decisive role. He brings the entire experience of the car manufacturer BMW in the processing of carbon fibers, from which the flying racing machines are made.

Who wins is open

Not surprisingly, aerospace engineers and aerodynamicists play a major role in the teams. It's all about minimal benefits that reduce frictional forces and water resistance. Above all, the shape of the foils is a secret science. At the high speed, explains Thomas Hahn, there is a risk that if the angle of attack is incorrect, air bubbles will form on the foils, which will suddenly cause the boat to sag.

No photos and a carefully monitored distance from the boat - the security people on the Oracle team are relentless. Nothing should leak out. "We learn new things every day," says Hal Youngren, who has a legendary reputation as an aerodynamicist and who worked for the New Zealanders at the last Cup. Two years ago, says Youngren, the crews failed to master a turnaround in the flight phase - now Spithill and Co. have also succeeded. The knowledge that BMW has gathered in its wind tunnel, acquired over decades of automotive engineering, also helped. “The air is the key to victory,” emphasizes Alex Zanardi.

Who wins is completely open. The New Zealanders, who still have an account with the USA team, are breaking new ground. They hired cyclists to use the greater strength of their thighs on the winches. The British are there with the Land Rover team. Four-time gold medalist Ben Ainslie, who was with Oracle in 2013, is now at the wheel of the English. A non-sailor took over the job of team boss there: Martin Whitmarsh was team boss of the McLaren-Mercedes Formula 1 team for many years. The Swedish "Artemis" team is rated even higher in terms of sailing. On the Great Sound, the Swedes are already regularly engaging in gripping fights with the Oracle team in training.

The last America’s Cup before San Francisco was a ratings hit for the TV stations because of the dramatic final. The organizer is also hoping for this now when the boats show their extreme performance. Then a question will surely be discussed: Is that still sailing? Germany’s model sailor Jochen Schümann, three-time gold medalist and two-time America’s Cup winner, believes the current regulations are a mistake. Bryan Baker, who is part of the design team at Oracle, is very pragmatic. He does not rule out that a winner will have the cup fought out in conventional boats again. Sometime. But first of all, the "USA 17" should get the ugly silver jug ​​again.

The report was made possible in part with support from BMW.

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