America's Cup: How Oracle won tech race (perhaps)

By Paul Lewis in San Francisco

Buzz in Cup circles focusing on active gyro stabiliser as magic that altered fortunes

Jimmy Spithill and his team got extra speed from somewhere. Photo / Gilles Martin-Raget
Jimmy Spithill and his team got extra speed from somewhere. Photo / Gilles Martin-Raget

Here's how it might have gone down. This is entirely fictionalised and based on a lot of the talk buzzing round America's Cup circles right now.

At the beginning, let's state: this is not an accusation nor sour grapes nor an intimation that Oracle might have done something naughty. I mean, that never happens, does it?

Seriously, it's all over; it's in the record books and it ain't going nowhere, as we say in the United States.

But those of us bitten by the America's Cup bug are always curious about the technology involved - and the impetus behind such a big leap in boat performance.

This might be somewhere close to what happened. Or it could be quite, quite wrong:

Jimmy Spithill, chairing a meeting of the sailing and design team: "Hell, boys, it's 8-1, how are we going to make the boat go faster? Give me a status report."

Team member: "We've got the new daggerboards nearly ready; we are allowed 10 of them in all and we are optimising some for different conditions and so we can go faster downwind or upwind, depending on the weather. We also have the systems already working which allow us to set our foils pretty much automatically. We are also ready to begin work on the wingsail - re-tooling it so it twists more, like Team NZ's does, should add more power."

JS: "That'll help but will it be enough? What does Russell say?"

Team member: "He says Larry told him to fit an active gyro stabiliser. He's got one on his superyacht Musashi. It would help us to foil more stably and for longer periods."

JS: "We can't do that; we can't have anything on board that uses stored energy. Everything has to be powered by the grinders."

TM: "Yeah, but what if we put in a gyro, powered it by the grinders and we turn it into a kind of read-out metre that doesn't do any actual work itself but just tells us what we have to do. That's allowed under the rules. So then the gyro would be giving us a reading and telling us at what level we need to get things to."

Another team member: "Yeah! The grinders already know where to direct their energy through lights and buttons on their consoles, right? So we could just set up the console with, like, two arrows, and the grinders know they have to sweat it out until the two arrows meet and hold it there."

JS: "Can we do that? [Leafs through rule book]. There isn't anything here which says we can't have a gyro. If we can do that, we can optimise the boat so that it holds its own downwind but goes upwind like a rocket ..."

TM: "But we've got no time."

JS: "Yes, we have, and we are just going to have to sail like men possessed until we get all this stuff up and running."

That's the bottom line (maybe). Whatever happened and whatever they used, Oracle ended up winning the technology race dominated for so long by Team NZ.

The fact that they were able (maybe) to put in place a stabilising mechanism that allowed better judgment than that of mere humans is no different from Team NZ beating the rules by working out how to foil in the first place. It's also no different from putting in place a self-tacking jib which, like the Oracle board system, doesn't need human intervention but is powered by the grinders.

In the end, Oracle got their enhancements together in double-quick time, aided and abetted by those God-awful America's Cup rules (time limits anyone?) and wind limits softened by the safety constraints after Bart Simpson's death - constraints that saw the races called off when Team NZ were leading and which gave Oracle time for more adjustments.

Computer modelling is so advanced - Team NZ made computer-designed enhancements to their boat which they knew were going to work even before they tested them - they could be reasonably assured of success. Some could argue that it's a shame that software and electronics win a sailing race. There's some carry in that.

But it was still a last-gasp throw of the technology dice - and they still had to sail like men possessed. And that's the America's Cup...

• Before anyone writes in with conspiracy and bribery theories, please don't bother unless you have absolute proof.

- NZ Herald

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