Emirates Team New Zealand have the America's Cup world in a flap, after springing a surprise innovation in their race boat for this year's event in Bermuda.

The team have replaced the traditional grinding pedestals in the boat with cycles, allowing the crew to use their more powerful leg muscles to power the sophisticated control systems in their new 50ft race boat.

The innovation wasn't used on their test boat, with Team NZ planning to keep the development up their sleeve until tomorrow's launch. But the eagle-eyed Richard Gladwell of Sail World spotted the team taking their boat for a preliminary spin yesterday and noticed something a little bit unusual about the set-up of the boat.

And so the cat was out of the bag, so to speak.


Team NZ are staying quiet on their new development for now, but will likely reveal all when they officially launch their sleek new catamaran tomorrow afternoon.

In the meantime, Dana Johannsen answers the burning questions around Team NZ's bold new development.

Why has no one done this until now?
The theory behind the move is obvious - the legs are a much bigger and stronger muscle group to the arms, therefore can exert more power - yet it has rarely been seen in sailing.

Team New Zealand's new AC50 is tested at the team's base in Auckland. The crew are sitting on the new cycle grinder pedestals. Photo/Photosport
Team New Zealand's new AC50 is tested at the team's base in Auckland. The crew are sitting on the new cycle grinder pedestals. Photo/Photosport

It is not entirely unheard of. The use of cycle pedestals were tried in the 12 Metre Class in 1977 by Swedish Challenger Sverige, with the crew mostly below deck to reduce windage.

However, it was banned in later editions of the Cup.

While the use of cycle power isn't prohibited in the current design rules, there are tradeoffs. The biggest issue will likely be the ability of the sailors to quickly disengage while tacking and being able to quickly get from one side of the boat to the other.

Team Japan skipper Dean Barker insists his team and other syndicates had considered the possibility of using pedal power, but discounted it as it wouldn't "pay for itself".

So why have Team NZ gone down this track?
With several major elements of the America's Cup Class (ACC) boat for the 35th edition of the event being one-design, the big area of development in this cycle has been in the sophisticated control systems to generate continuous and stable flight.

These control systems are powered through hydraulic pressure generated by the grinders. But the reduction in crew size from 11 in the previous event in San Francisco to just six this time around has presented massive challenges for the teams.

"It's about being able to get your boat set up as efficiently as you possibly can," Team NZ skipper Glenn Ashby explained to the Herald late last year. "We've only got a certain amount of power that the guys can put in, so we've got to be able to prioritise the energy usage around the track.

"If you run out of pressure, then you'll struggle to get the daggerboards up and down, and once you struggle to change your rake accurately enough, you can get out of control.

"But if you put too much effort into that, you can't have any energy for trimming the wing and the jib, and all the other functions that they're doing, so it's a real juggle of efficiency and power, versus performance around the track.

"That's where all the teams will be having battles with one another."

The solution Team NZ have developed both extends the amount of power able to be generated and available for use, and reduces stress and effort on the crew in generating it.

Will this change the crew balance?
With crews being reduced to just six, it was thought that four of those positions on each team would be taken up by grinders, whose sole job will be turning the handles.

However, as Barker pointed out, Team NZ's system raises the possibility that it could free up a crew member to handle the flight control systems, rather than burden the helmsman or trimmer with these jobs.