America’s Cup, Volvo Ocean Race and the case for innovation.
In 1983, challenger Australia II won the America’s Cup with a revolutionary ‘wing keel,’ designed by Dutch naval architect Piet van Oossanen. Today, you see that keel everywhere. “It is especially popular on shallow draft production models,” says Van Oossanen. That suggests innovation in big-name events like the AC or Volvo Ocean Race inevitably trickles down to every mom-and-pop’s weekend cabin cruiser with a dog on the transom. But it’s not that simple.
The VOR has gone one-design, forsaking individually engineered boats to save money and draw more participants. It had only 6 in the last event! But when the VOR asked Farr Yacht Design of the US to draw the one-design 65ft racer, it reaped a healthy crop of sour grapes.
“We certainly don’t believe a one-design is the best solution,” Argentinian naval designer Juan Kouyoumdjian told the Vsail website. He speaks of stifling both innovation and “young talent. Why can’t we have a 25-year-old designer out there? A brilliant, extremely clever guy who kicks our ass if someone gives him the chance? This is how development happens. Now the Volvo Group has clearly said they don’t want any development in the Volvo Ocean Race.” Is it that bad?
“First off, a one-design VOR is not a bad thing,” Van Oossanen tells Yacht & Coast. “It’ll attract more sponsors. I can see 10, 12 boats in the next VOR. And sailors love one-design racing. It puts the emphasis on their craft and cunning.”
But the globe-circling VOR and offshore AC are crucially different events. Van Oossanen questions the new-style VOR will choke off design innovation. “The VOR, frankly, never was a hotbed of innovation. Something like 80 to 90% of the race is run on beam or broad reaches. Innovation deals more with improving a craft’s upwind behavior. AC yachts spend half their time on close hauled tacks. That’s more complicated for a designer. That forces designers to focus on side force, heel and resistance. On broad reaches, designers face just one main question: ‘How do I reduce the hull’s resistance?’ That is more easy: make the hull’s wetted surface as small as possible.”
Van Oossanen says hi-tech advances in the VOR and AC only trickle down to boating at large if they “offer value for money,” he says. As his wing keel did. “There have been massive innovations in sail and rig technology _ like carbon sails and lightweight exotic materials for standing and running rigging _ that you’ll never see on production models. Far too expensive!”
Give us a call when your boat looks like those towering, wing-sail multi-hulls competing on ever choppy San Francisco Bay in the 2013 AC. They will carry sensors that an onboard server translates into instructions to the crew to maximize speed, tack, gybe, come about or trim the sails. Wireless technology puts that data on mast displays. And that required advanced wireless technology because carbon fiber hinders wifi communications.
Not exactly your mom-and-pop weekend cruiser with Sparky dozing off on the lazarette, is it?