Yachting: The cat's off the cradle

By Paul Lewis

Fireworks during the launch of Team NZ's new boat at the Viaduct Harbour last night.  Photo / Neville Marriner
Fireworks during the launch of Team NZ's new boat at the Viaduct Harbour last night. Photo / Neville Marriner

If anything can give the kiss of life to the fading light of the America's Cup, it is the boat - and what a boat - launched and named last night in front of thousands of people.

It was the first tangible breath of resuscitation of the Cup, becalmed on a sea of legal action and growing public indifference since the last truly competitive regatta in 2007. Emirates Team New Zealand's giant AC72 catamaran, now named New Zealand, is the first of its kind and signalled what should be a riveting regatta in San Francisco next year as holders Oracle attempt to retain the Auld Mug, one of sport's most enduring trophies.

"That's why we are doing this," says ETNZ boss Grant Dalton, speaking of the crowds watching 600 people man a rope to swing a bottle of champagne against the new vessel last night at Auckland's Viaduct Harbour.

"There has been some bad blood from the public towards the Cup [after a three year legal stoush between Oracle and Alinghi camps]. It wasn't our fault but we can help make things better, raise interest again."

The boat itself is wholly representative of the new era ushered in by Oracle; the dip not just of a pioneering toe into previously unexplored waters but whole legs, torso and arms.

America's Cup yachts are usually sleek, sophisticated racing machines. This thing has all that but also looks slightly wild, almost feral - sailing on the edge, in more ways than one; three plastic-fantastic knife blades lashed together.

It is 22m long and that gobsmacking, eye-pulling wing sail is 13m high, bigger than a jumbo jet wing, and a technological marvel. It can turn wind speed into almost unprecedented levels of boat speed. ETNZ technical director Nick Holroyd says 12 knots of wind should produce about 30 knots of boat speed in optimum conditions.

The AC72 is being touted as capable of 40 knots. Holroyd says, again with optimum conditions, that 50 knots is achievable. Just to compare - 50 knots is 92km/h; 40 knots about 75km/h.

If the AC72 could be transplanted onto Auckland's Southern Motorway, it'd be overtaking trucks, motor scooters and white vans ...

You'll note the use of some conditional terms and tenses. That's the kicker. No one really knows what this yacht can do. It's is the first AC72 to hit the water. They haven't even sailed it yet.

Talk about a journey into the unknown. Even getting this behemoth into the water and out to the harbour is a major exercise. It takes about 35 people to launch it on its regular trip from the dock into the water. Weights have to be attached to guy ropes otherwise the boat just takes off with the poor sods holding them. A huge crane is used to gently, oh so gently, lift the giant cat off its cradle and caress it into the water.

It is an excruciating sight - millions of dollars of highly breakable yachting technology in a totally foreign environment (the air), suspended by crane cables. At that stage, it looks like an abomination of nature, almost - the ship that flew.

At rehearsal, things didn't go totally to plan, the boat shifted slightly - and lifted a tonne and a half of dockside ballast weight.

The wing sail makes it too tricky to sail the AC72 out of the harbour - so ETNZ have devised boats with outboards stationed in the middle so the little craft can manouevre through 360 degrees to steer the big boat gingerly through crowded areas.

"We call them bumper boats, like those that you see at the Easter Show," says Holroyd, adding that there is a bigger, more ominous chase boat as well - equipped with four 300 horsepower engines.

"It's an obscene amount of horsepower," says Holroyd, "but if it [the AC72] should ever tip over, you need that kind of horsepower to pull it back up."

The crew are also in need of preventative action. They will wear crash helmets and body armour. Taking a spill off a giant catamaran doing 40 knots while flying a hull high off the water is no joke.

"There's a discussion going on at the moment involving the [14m] 'trampoline' that separates the hulls," says Holroyd. "If the boat does tip over and you are wearing a lifejacket or flotation, there is a chance that you could be caught under the tramp. There's been some talk about maybe wearing air bottles [for breathing] as well to guard against that."

"It's a little bit like a race car," says Dalton. "The speed feels fine until something goes wrong and you are heading for the wall. Then you realise how fast you are going."

Sobering stuff. So is the fact that all the challengers - ETNZ, Prada, Swedish team Artemis and Team Korea - will get little time to get used to the big cats. The rules say they have only 30 days of sailing time between now and January 31.

Those building a second AC72 cannot launch it before February 1. That means "getting to know you" time has been squeezed down to the yachting equivalent of speed dating.

Dalton says the time scale is so short there will not be too much difference between the first and second ETNZ AC72. "We are putting our best foot forward for the first boat and it will be developed forward for the second," he says. "But we will probably be taking a conservative route [with the second boat]. We don't know enough and there just isn't the time to do anything radical.

"We are trying to develop concepts for the second boat and we haven't even sailed the first one yet. We don't even know if the first one will go in a straight line. That's scary."

So are some of the costs. USA17, the giant trimaran with which Oracle wrested the America's Cup from Alinghi after a big-boat challenge, was said to cost $125m with its enormous 60m wing sail. When it broke a carbon fibre mast, the estimated cost of replacement was $12.5m.

The AC72s do not approach anywhere near that kind of expenditure. Dalton puts the cost of ETNZ's two boats as only about 10 per cent of budget (with 60 per cent of budget going on people).

That budget is secret but Oracle boss Sir Russell Coutts has always said about $100m would be needed to be competitive in the 34th America's Cup.

Even though there are only four challengers - and Korea are so far behind in boat development - it should be some regatta.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n4 at 02 Oct 2014 08:24:08 Processing Time: 485ms