How Oracle turned their boat into the rocket ship that won the 34th America’s Cup

Having remained in San Francisco for a few days after the end of the event, I got to speak to a number of people about what was really going on. It didn’t take long for the real picture of what was behind the speed improvements to emerge.

Oracle’s jump in performance half way through the America’s Cup is still the subject of hot debate, particularly among the New Zealand press who are convinced that the black cat had some special device that allowed them to foil more effectively. Was the ‘Herbie’, as it became nicknamed, legal? Would Team New Zealand take legal action?

The speculation should have been brought to a halt after team boss Grant Dalton confirmed on Saturday that the team would not be taking legal action over the alleged device. But the chatter still goes on.

Oracle’s two boats were very different in their handling characteristics, indeed so much so that they were nicknamed by the crews, ‘the wife’ and ‘the mistress’, the latter being boat number one, the more lively, wayward boat. Modified extensively after the big crash in October, the mistress, which was the boat Ben Ainslie helmed during two boat training, was twitchy and difficult to keep under control. (Incidentally, I’m told that Ben’s full-on attitude towards helming the mistress often gave her crew the jitters.)

Boat number two ‘the wife’, Spithill’s machine, was a far better balanced and dependable machine. This was the boat that went on to be in the Cup, but even then she was a very different boat by the end of the event.

Here are some of the modifications that took place.

Rudder T foil modification
This was one of the biggest performance enhancing changes.
The T-foils on Oracle’s rudders were found to be cavitating at speed which caused drag and reduced the lift of the foil. The bubble was developing at the intersection of the vertical rudder and horizontal foil, towards the after end. To reduce this a filet was added.
But I’m also hearing that a nose cone type device was also fitted to the forward end of the rudder foil intersection to move the pressure distribution, much like the bulbous bow on a ship.
While the modifications may have reduced the drag of the rudder, there may well have been an improvement in the trim of the boat too. With more efficient lift at the back, it may have been possible to reduce the angle of attack of the main foils, reducing drag further.

Hull interceptor
A vertical plate like device known as an interceptor was fitted to the transoms to modify the flow out from the stern and reduce drag. The system acts like a boot spoiler on a car and is a popular device on boats like Open 60s.

Asymmetric set up
I’m told that the boat was set up asymmetrically, possibly with a bit more angle of attack on the starboard daggerboard. This improved the boat’s performance on port tack, allowing the crew to put the bows down, go for more speed, pop up onto the foils, increasing speed as the drag reduced and yet still maintain the same true wind angle on port.

On starboard the boat performed less well, but with the breeze cranked around more to the left, there was more port tack action than starboard.

When they were sailing downwind on starboard, the boat sailed deeper for the same speed as the foil hauled the boat to leeward making a better VMG downwind. Again with left hand breeze there was more starboard tack than port.

Mast Rake
The rig was raked further aft to make the boat point better and improve her balance.

Wing power lower down
More power was generated in the wingsail by sailing with a more vertical leech in the lower sections and twisting the op off more.

The team made plenty of play of this, most likely as it was the most visible change, but the reality was that removing it for breezy days reduced weight and windage. The latter was however particularly important with 50knots over the deck upwind.

Main foil adjustment
Contrary to the Kiwi press’ speculations, the boat did not have a ‘Stability Augmentation System’ (SAS) fitted. I’m led to believe that the team did look into something along these lines early on but ditched the idea.
Instead, the main foils were adjusted with a mechanical ratchet style device that had fixed settings for a variety of angles of attack. Broadly speaking similar to the way that a bicycles gears are changed with a lever and fixed settings.

Other differences
Although not specific alterations, there were other key differences with the main foils. Oracle has much shallower foils, by around 1m and are much less curved than the Kiwis. Presumably one of the advantages here was lower drag from the reduced wetted surface area. A visible clue to this was how Oracle rode lower to the water’s surface than the kiwi boat. A less welcome characteristic aboard Oracle when at speed was that the boat would rise up so far that the main foil would run out of lateral support and jump sideways, planting the boat back down on the water. We saw this on a few occasions when she was being pressed hard on the first leg and around the first mark.

Key game changer
I’m also told that Oracle’s big changes, I think to the rudder, were made on the 16 September, the day that both teams agreed to take off rather than race. In hindsight this could have been one of the Kiwis’ big mistakes as they were on a roll at this point having 7 points to Oracle’s one. Agreeing to a day off allowed Oracle to engineer their biggest leap in performance as the built the major mod. Although this didn’t give them an instant win straight away, it took just one race to tweak the boat after which they won every race from the 19th onwards.

The Kiwis only won a single race after the 16th.