Matthew Sheahan makes an early assessment of the big four America's Cup teams on the day that their skirts feel to the floor
As the daytime fireworks woke Valencia, skirts were dropped around the Port America’s Cup as unveiling day got underway.
All 19 boats that have been declared for racing were on display for the press and the public with strict rules on how teams were to show their boats. The result was indeed revealing.
Among the variety of configurations on display there were long bulbs, short bulbs, skinny fins, fat fins and double chins. But four teams in particular caught my eye.
BIG AND BOLD
The Kiwi’s NZL84 and NZL92 were both good starting points for those unsure of where some of the key measurement points in the America’s Cup rule lay. All you had to do was to look for the distortion or abrupt change in shape and close by was a key measurement point. A slight exaggeration perhaps, but it’s clear from the angular aggressive lines that the concept has been to work the rule hard. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the bow sections where, from certain angles, the forward couple of metres look like a triangular nose cone that’s been stuck onto a hull that until then didn’t have a bow at all.
Looking aft from the bow, the topsides are completely vertical virtually all the way forwards with an aggressive turn of bilge giving the hulls an angular, box like appearance. The rationale behind such a move appears to be to shift volume forwards in the hull, a theme that appeared commonplace throughout much of the fleet.
The run aft was a much simpler cleaner affair on both boats.
While there are differences between each of the boats, the more obvious differences between NZL84 and NZL92 were in the fin and bulb configurations of each boat, the older of the two sporting a long slender bulb while their latest sported a shorter stubby bulb with a keel fin to match.
Overall the Kiwis’ bold looking boats suggest a team that has not only spent a great deal of time exploiting every possible detail, but feel confident and punchy.
THE TUBBY TWINS
By contrast, Alinghi’s SUI91 and SUI100 were both so full and rounded, especially in their forward sections, that they looked as if someone had accidentally over-inflated them. From amidships forward these two boats are staggeringly different from what we’ve seen so far from the Cup holders. Gone is the distinctive double knuckle, in comes a rounded, convex forefoot that sweeps up towards a plumb bow.
Looking up from under the bow it’s clear to see just how much volume has been pushed forwards, presumably as a result of squeezing the beam down to make them heel quickly in order to gain waterline length readily. There would be nothing strange in this, most teams recognise and indeed admit that they expect conditions in Valencia to be lighter than originally predicted.
What’s interesting is that while the Kiwis achieve this with a box like shape amidships and hard angles in the turn of the bilge, the risk is that they have increased the wetted surface area and hence drag. Alinghi on the other hand may have arrived at a similar conclusion but without adding on wetted surface area thanks to the more rounded section shape.
Another feature of the Swiss boats was how short the boats looked abaft the keels.
When it came to the keels, slender bulbs appeared to be their choice but it’s unlikely that what we saw slung beneath these boats will be what’s there long after Act 13.
In a nutshell, tubby but smart with it.
Despite some of the chat doing the rounds, there’s a quiet air of confidence about the BMW Oracle Racing camp and the overall style of both of their boats seemed to justify this.
There were no bumps, creases bulbs or bow sections that looked like developing double chins. Instead and on the face of it, simple easy lines that hadn’t been tweaked or pushed hard to prove a point yet with the more familiar, double knuckle bow, all be it smoothed out. USA87 even has a raked bow. How retro is that? And yet the more you looked at the hulls of USA87 and USA98, the more you could see the same basic features. Slab sided topsides, stacks of volume forwards, straight runs aft and the likes, but all achieved through lines that seemed to flow into each other throughout the length of the boat.
When it came to the keel configurations the team were exhibiting two bulb options, a short and fat bulb on USA87 with a correspondingly squat fin and a long sleek torpedo style aboard USA98.
But in both cases the configurations looked highly refined with curves where others chose to draw a straight line and creases underneath where some had chosen a curve.
Two boats so modest in appearance on the face of it, but I suspect so easy to underestimate.
THE ODD COUPLE
Whatever the final configuration of the big four, three of the teams appear to have produced a pair of boats along broadly similar lines, developments of a central theme. Luna Rossa’s boats are not like this at all and represent two very different basic configurations.
ITA86 is the conservative boat, ITA94 the wild child.
A gentle turn of bilge, smooth easy looking lines forward and fine bow, characterise ITA86 in a style that is arguably among the most modest in the entire fleet. She has a stubby short keel bulb and the fin to go with it with wings that are angled down and fitted further aft than is the norm. While many have gone for rudder blades that look more like Samurai swords, hers has more length in the chord, a possible clue as to why her helmsman James Spithill was able to outmanoeuvre so many big opponents last season in the pre-start.
ITA94 is anything but modest. Slab sided with a hard bow knuckle and a sharp turn of the bilge, she’s way more aggressive than her sister. Her bulb is long and slender with a skinny fin. But perhaps what’s most striking about this boat is how flat she is in her forefoot. Will she really be comfortable in a swell?
To have two such different boats was surprising in itself, especially when many believed that the products of a fifth generation rule had refined themselves into a tight niche.
Yet having an odd couple like these two might just cover the bases better.
To read more about our analysis of the fleet along with explanations of some of the key issues in the design and styles in the 32nd America’s Cup see the June issue of the magazine.