The first thing you see when walking through Bermuda’s only airport is a giant poster for the America’s Cup… and then another, and another. Signs emblazoned with slick overhead images of 50ft (15m) racing boats that look like stealth fighters are all over the tiny island, which in June will host the 35th edition of one of the world’s oldest international sporting events.
The last cup, held in San Francisco in 2013, was just one of many attractions in the city, easily forgotten unless a space-age catamaran happened to rocket past while you were en route to work. But this year’s competition will completely take over a windy island nation best known for rum drinks and knee-length shorts.
You can think of the America’s Cup as basically two eras: everything up until 2010, and then the radical transformation that followed the arrival of multi-hull boats.
faster boats, shorter course
In 1851, America raced against 15 other boats on a 98km course around the Isle of Wight, off the coast of England. America won the race by eight minutes – roughly one-third of the time it will take to complete the course in Bermuda. This course, on a sound between two islands, is 16-19km and will take 20-22 minutes.
It was in that year Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and BMW Oracle Racing beat the defending champion, Alinghi from Switzerland, in a trimaran with a rigid wing – the largest wing ever made – instead of a sail.
The Oracle boat averaged more than 20 knots (37kph), doubling the speeds from previous cups, and things got even crazier in 2013 as both Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA sailed catamarans with foils that flew atop the water, with a top speed of more than 40 knots (74kph). This heralded the beginning of what was essentially a new sport, one that favoured technology and athleticism as much as sailing experience. “Imagine taking the 300-horsepower motor out of your Camaro and putting a 3,000-horsepower motor in the same car,” Oracle’s director of performance, Ian ‘Fresh’ Burns, told a reporter that year.
Turning yacht racing into Formula One on water was exactly what Ellison had in mind, and in preparation to defend this year’s title he asked organisers and engineers to keep pushing the limits while also slashing costs to attract more teams.
Barely the same sport
Yacht America, the first winner of the America’s Cup, was a 31m wood-hulled schooner with 490sq-m of sail volume when moving upwind. The AC50 is 15m long with a carbon-fibre hull and a rigid 102sq-m wingly over the years – but then, in 2007, it began to skyrocket
The newest foiling catamarans – AC50s – are the fastest sailboats ever made, capable of topping 50 knots (92kph), despite being just over half the length and costing half as much to develop as the AC72s used four years ago. As a result, six teams will compete to take the cup from Ellison and his brash Aussie skipper, Jimmy Spithill.
Spithill will helm the youngest team he’s ever had on a sailboat, all boasting the fitness levels of an Ironman triathlete. Add to this a team of engineers and boat builders partnering with companies like Airbus and BMW to fine-tune the new-look multihulls. Spithill almost can’t believe how far his sport has come. “The question I ask myself is: what’s going to happen next?” he says.
The smallest (but fastest) boats in the AC’s history
In 1903, the Reliance, at 61m long, was the largest boat ever to win the America’s Cup. In 2017, the AC50s are a quarter of that size
1851-2007: MONOHULLS: 20-27m on the water line; top speed of 7-11 knots (13-20kph)
2010: THE USA-17 TRIMARAN: 27m long, 3,500kg; top speed of 32 knots (59kph)
2013: THE AC72 CATAMARAN: 26m long, 5,900kg; top speed of 44 knots (81kph)
2017: THE AC50 CATAMARAN: 15m long, 2,360kg; estimated top speed of 46-50 knots (85-92kph)