From 1958 to 1987, the America’s Cup was a game of incremental improvements. Sailors and designers slowly evolved 12 Meters from stately offshore yachts into buoy-racing machines. The change to the International America’s Cup Class, which debuted in 1992, was a step forward, but not a leap, in terms of performance.
Because both classes shared key characteristics with the average recreational keelboat — a keel, for one — a steady stream of innovation and refinement transferred directly to production designs. The winch systems, sail materials, blocks and electronics that powered such boats as Courageous, Australia II and Black Magic to victory were passed to recreational sailors, and the bond remained strong between the sport’s grass roots and sharp end.
That bond was seriously tested during the acrimonious and one-sided Deed of Gift match in 2010, and the subsequent two matches in foiling multihulls. The current AC75 has a single hull, but it’s far removed from the typical monohull. However, the river of trickle-down technology is still flowing from champions to cruisers.
Damien Jacob, product marketing coordinator for Beneteau, says the builder pays attention to Cup boats. “It’s true, these boats are pure racing machines,” he says, “but if we get only 1 percent of the technology out of it and refined into a cruising boat, it’s still a lot.”
The primary conduits for this technology transfer, he says, are individual designers and boatbuilders. He points to the First Yacht 53, the latest addition to Beneteau’s “luxury performance” line. The hull is by Roberto Biscontini, a naval architect who spent more than two decades working for America’s Cup teams, including Emirates Team New Zealand, the current holder of the trophy.
“We didn’t ask him to design the First 53 as an America’s Cup-type boat, but to reuse all his knowledge,” Jacob says. “This way, we are reusing the America’s Cup technology, not exactly copying the design but more using the knowledge that has been put into the design process.”
The Figaro 3, Beneteau’s one-design boat for the French offshore racing circuit, is another example of top-end technology filtering into production boatbuilding. The Figaro 3 has external foils emerging from the topsides to improve righting moment and reduce leeway. This use of foils has largely bypassed the America’s Cup, which went straight to lifting boats clear out of the water. But the composite technology required to build slender, curved foils capable of handling extreme loads — not to mention the internal structures to support the foils — was innovated and refined in the Cup world.
“It’s nothing compared to what they are doing today,” Jacob says, “but here we can reuse more of the technology into a small racing boat that fits into a mass-production process.”
Bill Goggins, CEO of Harken USA, agrees that foiling has changed the game in the sailing world, especially for equipment manufacturers. “We’re seeing foil technology change how the boats are raced beyond the America’s Cup,” Goggins says. “It’s extending from buoy racing all the way to the Vendée Globe, where guys race single-handed around the world in 60-foot boats. That has allowed real breakthroughs to happen.”
Goggins likens sailing today’s racing foiling boats to flying, saying they share technologies required on planes and grand prix sailboats. Where winches used to be the control systems of choice on Cup keelboats, the technology has evolved to require hydraulic systems that offer power in a lightweight package.
“We’d started developing hydraulic winches in 2007 in custom prototypes and dramatically advanced them in 2014, when foiling in the America’s Cup started with the 72-foot catamarans,” he says. “Since then, we’ve provided production hydraulic systems not just for the AC, but across the marine industry.”
Although foils won’t be seen on cruising sailboats anytime soon, Goggins says, foiling has changed high-performance racing. “It’s far more of a technology game, more like F1 racing. All of the systems are extremely weight-sensitive,” he says. “Weight is considered the enemy. We joke that if something doesn’t break through sheer fatigue as it crosses the finish line, then it was overweight. There is a grain of truth to that, though we obviously build for reliability.”
Sailmaking also has been a consistent benefactor of America’s Cup innovation. “Compared to a billionaire’s research and development budget in a Cup campaign, we’re a small company,” says Ken Read, president of North Sails. “A small company’s R&D budget is very much determined by client interaction, and there’s nothing better for client interaction and development than an America’s Cup program. Some smart people are going to ask you questions that you’ve never even thought of.”
North’s 3Di sailcloth, which is used for cruising and racing applications, is a hand-me-down from the 2007 America’s Cup. “It was started by the Alinghi team,” Read says. “They said, ‘We can’t commercialize this, do you want it?’ We said yes and had to figure out how to make them and sell them, hopefully for a profit.”
Two America’s Cup cycles with rigid-wing sails — San Francisco in 2013 and Bermuda in 2017 — put soft sail technology on the back burner. But Read is bullish on the twin-skin mainsails that will be used on the foiling AC75 monohulls that will race for the Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2021. He sees a future application with high-performance cruising boats. Whether these are monohulls with foil-enhanced stability or quick catamarans, they will require versatile sail plans to safely realize their potential.
“Speed is great offshore because you can get away from problems,” Read says. However, he adds, when a boat starts accelerating, “you need depth in the sails to get the boat going fast enough for the foil systems, for the hull shapes, to start working. As soon as they start working, to keep going at those speeds, you need to depower quite quickly.”
The rigid wings that powered the AC72 and AC50 catamarans were able to shift gears quickly, much the way an airplane wing goes from takeoff mode to cruising mode. But rigid wings are a challenge to maintain and a safety concern in extreme winds. The twin-skin arrangement is not as efficient as a rigid wing and not as flexible as a traditional sail. But, Read says, it may be the perfect middle ground.
There are plenty of hurdles to adapt the twin-skin technology for fast cruising yachts, not the least of which is how to reef two sails at once. But the future is within reach, especially with deep-pocketed Cup programs handling the initial development.
Sometimes the most important thing provided by the America’s Cup is aspiration. After watching Oracle Team USA’s stirring comeback in 2013, financier and philanthropist Donald Sussman called his longtime boat captain, Tommy González, and said, effectively, “I want to do that.”
Adapting the technology behind AC72 into a large cruising catamaran was, and is, a robust challenge. González, who owns Fast Forward Composites in Bristol, R.I., assembled a team of engineers and builders who had worked on two development cycles for the foiling America’s Cup catamarans. The result of their efforts is the Eagle Class 53, a prototype weekender with a hybrid wing that splits its sail area between a single rigid front element and a traditional sail, which can be raised and lowered. The boat launched in early 2019 and has been sailing the Caribbean in displacement mode with curved foils.
“Are we an offshoot of the multihull Cup?” González asks. “Yes, we are, and we’ll also be an offshoot of the new Cup class. Those guys are braver than the last set of guys.”
González is hoping to fit the boat with lifting foils in the near future and would like to build five to seven Eagle Class cats before he retires the molds. But, like Jacob and Read, he’s also paying close attention to the current Cup competition.
“I want to see them continue developing the control systems with Airbus and their millions of dollars and all their genius,” he says. “I want to see what comes up and what trickles down that we can incorporate into what we are doing.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.