All by itself the Louis Vuitton Cup is a significant regatta, but it is made infinitely more important and exciting by the fact that it's the elimination series that decides which challenger will come up against the defenders of the America's Cup. This time around the Louis Vuitton Cup—named for the French luggage manufacturer that sponsors this event—is shaping up to be the best ever, and its winner will have an excellent chance of prevailing in the main event against the host New Zealanders.
For the upcoming Louis Vuitton Cup, which begins on October 1, there are nine challengers, three of them from the US. The Seattle Yacht Club, the New York Yacht Club, and the Golden Gate Yacht Club will battle each other and five European contenders for the right to challenge. The other nations in the lineup are Italy, with two separate would-be challengers, Britain, Switzerland, France, and Sweden with one contender each.
A major factor in bringing most of these syndicates to the peak of proficiency this year is the trading of talent, both in the design and sailing spheres. This diffusion of skill and technology is resulting in a very high but even spread of proficiency. Since the last edition of the Cup, designers and co-designers have changed affiliations, and helmsmen and key crewmembers—many of whom have design experience as well—have moved to other countries in search of greater remuneration and better working conditions. Many of those who have switched allegiance are New Zealanders who helped that country dominate the America's Cup scene for the past seven years.
Since the last Cup in 2000, out of the blue came a challenge from land-locked Switzerland. No way! But the way became clear when Team New Zealand's on-the water leader Russell Coutts, along with Brad Butterworth, and several other key players from the potent Team New Zealand afterguard of 2000, moved to the mountains of Europe to join young Swiss billionaire and sailor Ernesto Bartarelli in his bid to remove the Cup from the halls of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
Now Bartarelli's challenge is considered to be one of the strongest of the nine contenders. Coutts, the master helmsmen who has won the last two America's Cup contests, is also an engineer, and he was closely involved with the Kiwi design team leading up to the 2000 defense. With his technical bent, he would have understood and surely remembered many of the features that made NZL 60 a super boat. That invaluable knowledge made its way with him to the Swiss camp and would have been a splendid starting point for Bartarelli's 11-person design team, led by Dutch naval architect Rolf Vrolijk.
Laurie Davidson, the New Zealander who played a major role in the Kiwi victories of 1995 (when they took the Cup in San Diego) and 2000 (when they defended it with such resounding superiority in both design and boat handling), was hired by Seattle tycoon Craig McCaw to lead the design team for his OneWorld Challenge. Several Team New Zealand crewmembers also made the switch to OneWorld with Davidson.
Davidson came under criticism in his homeland for having jumped ship after his two decisive victories, but in fact he was in the process of taking out US citizenship before the 2000 Cup match and officially became an American while his boat was busy trouncing the Italians on the Hauraki Gulf. Moreover, the 75-year-old designer had been living in the Seattle area for several years before signing up with the New Zealand challenge of 1995.
Davidson's influence has been pervasive in America's Cup design offices. After the 1995 victory of NZL 32, which he designed in collaboration with Californian Doug Peterson (who later switched to Italy's Prada syndicate), there was a scramble to emulate or improve upon that boat's slippery hull shape. Peterson's efforts were put into the magnificent Luna Rossa designs that took Prada to the 2000 Cup finals against Davidson's NZL 60. Other design teams, making educated guesses if they could not get hard numbers, came up with boats that were obviously of the same family as NZL 32.
The intensity and drama of the upcoming Louis Vuitton Challenger Races for the America's Cup might only be defused if a challenger happens to come up with a breakthrough boat, and this is highly unlikely. Under the America's Cup Class measurement rule, long, narrow, and heavy boats have proven to be fast. With the existing trade-off between the speed-enhancing factors of sail area and length opposing the speed deterrent of weight, America's Cup designers have long known that a design at or near the top weight limit of 55,000 pounds can then have sufficient length and sail area to produce a competitive boat.
|"Recent photographs from Auckland indicate that the Oracle boats have less sail area than most of the other contenders. If so, those moderate sail plans must be buying some speed-producing feature elsewhere."|
Bruce Farr, who has designed the boats for the Oracle Racing Team headed by San Francisco's Larry Ellison, has always been a patron of lighter boats. He led other designers away from the heavy, fine-ended boats designed under the IOR in the 1970s and has continued to make a name for his design firm with light, moderately canvassed machines. That he should be the only one to go this route in the America's Cup would be characteristic. Recent photographs taken in Auckland indicate that the Oracle boats have less sail area than most of the other contenders. If this is so, the moderate sail plan must be buying some speed-producing feature elsewhere. My guess would be that the measured length of Oracle's boats is right up there with the rest of the boats, but that the displacement of these vessels is less—perhaps by as much as 2,000 kilograms or 4,400 pounds.
There is another slim possibility for design deviation within the current crop of International America's Cup Class boats. Deep draft virtually always improves upwind performance. However, under the America's Cup rule, any draft greater than four meters (13.12 feet) is multiplied by four and added to the measured length of the boat. This is a stiff penalty, but perhaps one worth considering, and it could be that the Farr boats are trying a combination of more draft and lighter weight. When sailing to windward, less sail area makes very little speed difference, and in heavy air it might even be an advantage. The mainsail and jib luffs actually remain the same length and the reduction in sail is taken off the foot of the main or the length of the foretriangle. Although this reduction would have little effect upwind, it would mean a lot less sail area downwind as foretriangle length also governs the width of the spinnakers. So it would be a tossup whether the lighter displacement could make up for the smaller sail plan. In my view, it probably would not in light air, but the combination could be very quick in strong winds. Nonetheless, a deeper keel would not pay downwind in any condition.
Hull structures are as light as they can be made under the rule, and the only place where significant weight can be saved is in the lead ballast that lives at the bottom of these keels, four meters below the surface. Reducing weight here also reduces stability in the computer, but if the sail area is also less, then stability under sail would be comparable to that of the other boats.
Farr took a step in this direction with the boats he designed for the New York Yacht Club during the 2000 America's Cup. But that campaign faltered due to lack of time and then stumbled to its knees when Young America nearly broke in two during a race and was saved from sinking only by the Herculean efforts of the crew and the Italian support boats that happened to be nearby. The Young America boats were purchased by the Prada organization after the 2000 event and reports from Italy some months later indicated that the Farr boats were a shade faster than Prada's own boats that had won the Louis Vuitton Cup and faced the New Zealanders in the finals.
This time around the New York Yacht Club's challenge is being managed by Dennis Conner. One of their boats, which are near sisterships, sank off San Diego in late July, then was sent down to New Zealand to be repaired en route. Meanwhile the other boat has been sitting outside at the Stars & Stripes compound in Los Angeles for all the world to see. Despite all the secrecy that surrounds most every syndicate's activities in Auckland, Conner's camp realizes that it's too late now for designers to go back to the drawing board in any meaningful way. Team Dennis Conner's boat, designed by the American firm of Reichel-Pugh, is very flat in section across the bottom and very slab-sided, like a flat-bottomed sharpie with the bilges rounded off.
The guessing game regarding design approaches to the 2002-2003 America's Cup will go on for another month, and then on October 1, the opening round of the Louis Vuitton series will begin on the Harauki Gulf and all the speculation will be replaced by stark reality.
Fathoming the FormatOne of the most important changes made to the Louis Vuitton Cup pertains to the format under which this elimination event is conducted. Unlike past editions, a renewed premium has been placed on winning races so as to avoid the possibility of one team throwing a race to benefit another team. As the event's organizers explain it: “This system has been adopted to allow the teams that shine early to concentrate on racing against other strong teams, while still allowing teams with less success early [in the event], to survive if they improve their performance and win consistently.”
On October 1, the first of two round-robins will begin in which all nine would-be challengers will race each other once. Each victory is worth one point. After the conclusion of those two round robins, the top eight boats will be ranked according to points won and will move on to a best-of-seven, quarter-final round beginning on November 12. The top four of those boats will be given double the chance of moving on through to the semi-finals. This is where the format gets a little complicated and visual aids really do help (see SailNet's America's Cup Coverage, Schedule and Standings).
Both the quarter-finals and the semi-finals (scheduled for December 9-28) are followed by a best-of-seven “repechage” phase wherein the top-ranked boats that initially lose will have a second chance at proceeding. Then the finals will feature a best-of-nine series beginning on January 11, and the winner of that proceeds to the America's Cup—a best-of-nine series scheduled to begin March 15 next year. Still confused? Log on to www.louisvuittoncup.com.
Suggested Reading: America's Cup Preview by Bruce Kirby
America's Cup Design Retrospective by Bruce Kirby
IACC Boats Unveiled by Bruce Kirby
SailNet Store Item: America's Cup Screensaver