When boats look like a plane. In Toulon to see the future of sailing with AC 45s


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The America’s Cup circus in early September landed in France in Toulon for the only Mediterranean leg.
We went to see, invited by Norauto Italia, sponsor of Groupama Team France, what it was like to see the catamarans flying just a few meters from the shore. And to also approach the champions who pilot these flying objects and hear what they think about them and how they are preparing for the real challenge, that of the next America’s Cup, in Bermuda from May 2017. And see if one day this different way of sailing will also affect our boats and the way we go to sea. In the past, all innovations have come through the America’s Cup. Will it still be like this?

First disappointment, there was little wind, so the flight, that is, sailing at insane speed of the AC 45 (m. 13.45) over the water, thanks to foils and rigid wing instead of traditional sail, was not there. Nevertheless, seeing these “vehicles” that look more like a plane than a boat is fascinating. Yes, but as a sailor though, I can’t get all the way excited about the show. I discuss this with Ivan Zignego, a lecturer at the Polytechnic School of the University of Genoa and a former Hobie Cat racer. I ask him how much the AC45s remind him of the hulls we are used to seeing. “Definitely very little: they are very different boats: size, materials and the same sails make it really difficult to compare.” Then, on the evolution of America’s Cup hulls, his opinion confirms my feelings; “Leaving aside the more technical aspects, I believe that these boats guarantee spectacular racing. At the same time, however, precisely because of their performance and the very high level of preparation required of crews, I wonder how much a yachtsman can identify with one of these helmsmen“.

In short, an exciting show but one to be watched, necessarily, from a distance. Perhaps I am being pessimistic, but the idea that, tomorrow, a hull with similar performance to an AC45 will have any yachtsman at the helm, (instead of Franck Cammas or Jimmy Spithill, just to name a couple), makes me cringe.
On Sunday at lunchtime, just before the start for the first race of the day, I meet the skipper of Groupama himself. A very quick exchange of banter about the weather (difficult to interpret) and the difficulty of being at the helm of such a high-performance boat. “In light wind conditions like today, we have more time to make decisions. On the other hand, when the boat sails on foils everything becomes faster and more stressful, partly because it is a type of sailing with which we have less experience“. There would be many more questions, but the extremely tense expression of departure suggests that it is time to go.

The America’s Cup village is now stormed by fans and many curious onlookers who wander among the stands of all kinds waiting for the start. The hulls parade one after another in front of the grandstands, the wind doesn’t come but that’s part of the game. Cool drinks and sun hats rule the day. My eye falls on Oracle’s wing: very consistently I find Airbus branding. And the impression that they are more like airplanes than sailboats is becoming more and more concrete. It was Michel Desjoyeaux, the ‘professor’ of ocean sailing, along with Olivier de Kersauson and Franck Cammas who created Team France in 2013. The first, two-time winner of the Vendée Globe (2001 and 2009) I meet him while waiting for the start. I am dubious, amazed that ‘oceanic’ people would participate in a competition like this. We sit down, he starts talking. Amidst the din of music and comments to the pre-start stages he explains his vision to me and everything takes on a different meaning. “In both America’s Cup and ocean racing, one works in teams. The group may be larger or smaller but, in reality, the only thing that changes is the goal to be achieved. For us now it is the America’s Cup. If it will not be in this edition patience, we are already working for the next one“.

Screenshot 2016-09-16 at 5:25:34 p.m.
The AC45s rigid wing is 20 meters high and has an area of 85m2. The operating principle is not very different from that of a traditional mainsail except that the rigidity of the structure allows for greater efficiency. It is composed of two elements: a front one, the main, consisting of a single structure, and a rear one, the flap. The latter is in turn divided into three separate, individually adjustable elements. As for adjustments, it is possible to vary the angle between the main and the flap (camber) by adjusting the lift, the twist of the sail by acting on the flap elements, and, of course, act on the mainsheet.

I appreciate your determination, but I still wonder about the point of making sailboats that travel at over 30 knots.
Replacing the mainsail with a rigid wing, much like an airplane wing, has improved performance. The introduction of foils then allowed the hull to rise above the water. Once again the principles that enable airplanes to fly come into play: the wing this time does not cleave the air but the water thanks to its L-shape. Below the hull, the wing generates enough vertical thrust (lift) to lift the catamaran. That is, if the wind speed is sufficient: below 8 knots, hopes are almost nil.

Foils, allow the hull to rise above the water. They have an L shape and an asymmetrical airfoil. The horizontal element when hit by water flow generates lift, which is also a function of the angle of incidence of the profile with respect to the fluid. When sailing, adjustment of this angle (which does not exceed 15-20°) is possible by varying the longitudinal inclination of the foil.
What can be the future of this technology in ocean racing? “We have long known that the use of foils dramatically increases the efficiency of the boat, and in ocean racing, efficiency must be maximized in all wind conditions. As early as 2002 in the ORMA circuit there was a suggestion to have the hulls lifted completely out of the water, but there were some objections, so a restrictive rule was added in this regard.”. The road thus seems to be set, so in the future we can expect, at least on race courses, an increasing presence of hulls that barely skim the surface of the sea.
Where will the research go? Zignego again replied, “Research in all disciplines must continue without setting limits (ethics excluded). The application of research results is up to man who must understand their usefulness. Specifically, in my opinion sailing/flying is another sport and should be understood and regulated as such.”

Paul Gemini

The numbers of an AC45
Length: 45 feet (13.45 m)
Maximum height: 25.5 m
Design: Mike Drummond and Oracle Racing
On board: 5 crew members
Total crew weight limit: 437.5 kg (about 87.5 kg per person)
Maximum speed: 35-40 knots



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