Alinghi reveals its cat, but is this really the machine they will defend with and what happens next?


As the marquee doors were drawn back and the lucky few were ushered through into the vast temporary boat shed on the shores of Lake Geneva, there was an atmosphere of excitement within the team. For once, the tables had been turned with team members watching closely the faces of the journalists to see and interpret their first impressions.

It was hard not to grin as we craned our necks around the 30x40m tent and tried to take in the sheer size of this pumped up cat. For all the frustration and bitching that has been a part of the last two acrimonious years, here was something tangible, exciting and positive – a boat. A boat on a scale that will spark a fresh new round of America’s Cup debate based largely on the speculation as to whether something this big, this powerful and presumably this fragile can possibly hang together when the breeze gets up into the high teens.

It’s a question that’s already being posed by Alinghi 5’s designers and engineers who, despite having worked hard on the detail, clearly still have their reservations about the new technology. According to designers Rolf Vrolijk and Dirk Kramers, 20 knots of breeze will be the ‘upper limit’ of this boat and even then you get the impression that what they really want to say is ‘pretty frightening’.

Not being able to imagine just how powerful this machine will be starts with the fact that it’s difficult to visualise it in the first place if you’re not standing under the bowsprit looking aft. The ban on cameras seemed particularly ironic on the day given that none of us had lenses wide enough to even begin to fit in the entire boat in one frame such is her extraordinary beam. Instead we were handed a USB stick with a selection of pre-shot, pre-approved pictures. But while these gave some impression of the scale of this project, Alinghi 5 has moved on considerably with additional cross beams, an array or dolphin strikers and stays and a bow sprit that has the proportions of the Crystal Palace radio mast.

There is no doubt that this is a spectacular project. Indeed, those that have seen BMW Oracle’s tri in the flesh will no doubt feel the same.

But while her size and speed potential is impressive, you can’t help thinking that the next eight months will be more of a techno-fest than a preparation for a closely fought America’s Cup. With predicted upwind speeds of 20knots and reaching into the 30s, the idea of a conventional dial up with a closing speed of say 60knots is simply fanciful.

So what will happen when these two meet, wherever that may be?

The Deed of Gift (DoG) match will consist of three races, the first a 20 nautical mile upwind leg followed by the same distance downwind to the finish. That’s it, just one lap.

The second race will be an equilateral triangle with 13 mile legs. The first will be a beat, the next two reaches. It is this course and the reaching legs that Kramers is most wary of. “When you’re sailing a multihull at a true wind angle of 90-120 degrees there’s nowhere to escape to when you’re over powered.”

The third race will again be a two leg windward/leeward.

The dates that are currently set 8, 10, 12 Feb 2010 subject as always to the weather playing ball, which in turn will depend on where the event is held. And here’s where the next potential stumbling block could be.

At present BMW Oracle’s understanding of the ruling on venues is that the event will take place in Valencia, but a recent bout of rumours suggests that Alinghi may be considering other locations, in particular Turkey, Dubai or Oman. Presumably if a venue other than Valencia was chosen, (and it is the Defender’s right in this case to choose the venue), sparks would fly in the Spanish city that did so much to host the last America’s Cup. But BMW Oracle may have a few words to say about this too and given the two teams record on sorting issues to the mutual satisfaction of both, a return to oak panelled rooms might seem likely.

And then there’s the issue of where the boats were really built. Defaulting to a DoG match means that the rules on where the boat is built are more loosely defined. According to Krammers, it’s always not that easy to define what the correct interpretation of rules should be in this area. Consequently, much of Alinghi 5 has been built in Switzerland.

But perhaps the biggest question of all is whether this really is the boat that the Swiss intend to defend the America’s Cup in. Indeed, the same could be asked of the American’s boat as well.

For what it’s worth, I suspect not in both cases. The amount of development required to get some of the world’s most exciting supermaxis humming at the speeds that their VPP’s boasted when the idea was floated past the owner takes some doing. Years in some cases and that’s for reasonably ‘conventional’ craft.

The chances of hitting the magic numbers in the next few weeks or even months for a maxi sized beach cat? Close to zero.

But that doesn’t stop this latest launch from being one of the few exciting and positive bits of news to come from an event that has dragged itself and the reputation of high profile yacht racing through the mud recently.

Later this week she’ll be floated and the tentative steps towards taking her sailing will begin.

Can’t wait.