Out on Pensacola Bay, the combination of a fantastical-looking test boat called the Mule and technology from aviation giant Airbus is giving the New York Yacht Club's American Magic a flying start toward trying to win the America's Cup in two years.
When the 38-foot Mule reaches a certain speed, it undergoes a striking visual transformation as it rises up on hydrofoils and slices across the top of the waves.
American Magic confirmed this week that it is sailing "dry laps" at its winter base in Florida, with the Mule's hull never touching the water as it flies on foils all the way around a course that's roughly six miles long and two miles across.
"When we get the right breeze direction ... we can do 16 miles of sailing out of the water. It's amazing how fast that happens," Terry Hutchinson, American Magic's executive director and skipper, said in a phone interview.
Although spies from rival syndicates have certainly seen the development, American Magic revealed just this week that it has been doing dry laps for about a month.
It's a big step because American Magic is the only one of the seven teams for the 2021 America's Cup that has built the closest thing allowed by the rules to what the actual race boat, the AC75, will look and perform like.
American Magic is building its first AC75 in Rhode Island and expects it to be finished by the middle of the summer.
American Magic isn't patting itself on the back because teams never feel they have enough time to prepare for sailing's marquee regatta.
"It's significant only in that it's teaching us the steps to improve our success day in and day out for boat one," Hutchinson said. "It's one of these milestones that everyone's going to have to achieve. We all know that the boat that can stay out of the water for basically the entire race and achieve 100 percent fly rate, that's going to be a hard boat to beat. It's nice to be laying the foundation in the early days to be figuring it out, but we also know there's a long way to go."
And as dry laps go, "You're really only as good as the last one, so if we touch down on the last one, our coach, James Lyne, lets us know about it: 'That doesn't count,'" Hutchinson said.
The Mule was launched in Newport, Rhode Island, last fall. The team set up its winter base in Florida in December.
Automotive giant Roger Penske, one of the team principals along with Doug DeVos and Hap Fauth, nicknamed the boat Mule, a term for a test car. "That just stuck," Hutchinson said.
It performs anything like a mule. Canting arms tipped with T-foils mounted on both sides of the hull make it look somewhat like a nautical insect. In full flight, the boat rides on foils on the rudder and the leeward foil arm, with the windward foil arm out of the water. When the boat tacks, the foil arms switch positions.
Hutchinson said the team has tacked and gybed through three or four laps without touching down.
"I guess what it says is the concept works, which is exciting," Hutchinson said. "It bodes well for America's Cup racing."
That said, "There's a lot of work to do. Just because we do it here doesn't mean it will happen straightaway in the 75-footer. It took us a while to get to this point. Without the help of Airbus, we wouldn't be experiencing this as quickly as we have in the manner we have."
Airbus, American Magic's innovation partner, began working with the syndicate's design team from the start. Hutchinson said six Airbus engineers are assigned to the team, "and behind them is a small army of Airbus engineers that help support us.
It's fun. Obviously, Airbus makes planes fly and that's what they're very good at and that's what they're doing to help support American Magic."
Thus, the comparison to flight. Prior to liftoff, helmsman Dean Barker picks the correct angle, the sails are trimmed, the foils and rudder are adjusted "and out of the water she comes and away she goes, very much like an airplane taking off," said Hutchinson, who declined to say what the takeoff speed is.
Pensacola is 60 miles from Airbus' assembly plant in Mobile, Alabama.
Although foiling has been around for decades, it made its America's Cup debut in 72-foot catamarans in 2013, when Oracle Team USA's ability to foil upwind allowed it to rally from an 8-1 deficit and stun Emirates Team New Zealand. The boats were downsized to 50-footers for 2017, and Team New Zealand was the first to sail a race completely on foils, after having done so in its test boat the year before.
The Kiwis went on to upset Oracle Team USA in the match and chose to replace the catamarans with the AC75.
In this America's Cup, "If you're not on foils for 98, 99 per cent of a race, you will not be competitive," said American Magic foil trimmer Andrew Campbell, who was a backup tactician with Oracle in 2017.
Campbell said the last year or so "has been a pretty wild time for these boats and everything going on."
The gee-whiz factor of doing dry laps has made way for high expectations.
"There's definitely pressure on you when you do it, knowing everybody in the coach boat is watching you," Campbell said. "The time we did tacks and gybes, you could hear people in the coach boat shouting, and when we were watching film, people were hooting and hollering. The people on the shore crew who support us every day, they just froth at this stuff. They love to see us succeed. ... It's a little bit of a gut check. You don't want to have a touchdown and have everyone deflate."
The Mule is sailed by five crewmen. The AC75 will have a crew of 11.