An extraordinary sporting event just happened in the last 24 hours. No, it’s not what you’d call mainstream sport. Not rugby, basketball, soccer, baseball or cricket but that doesn’t make what happened any the less extraordinary.
It was a yachting race. Although the yachts in this race are not like anything you’ve ever seen before. They fly like the wind or with the wind. They certainly fly across the water.
In case you missed it, New Zealand won the America’s Cup. In sailing terms it’s the equivalent of being the first to climb Mount Everest. Hang on a minute the Kiwis did that as well.
It’s the biggest sailing trophy there is. The Kiwis won it once before sailing in a more conventional looking sailboat. A lot has changed since then. These days the America’s Cup is sailed on super fast catamarans that spend more time on top of the water than actually in it.
So what? You might say. If you did say that you’d be making a big mistake. Many things make this victory extraordinary. For instance, there is the David and Goliath nature of the battle. New Zealand, a small country with limited budgets versus United States Team Oracle with a seemingly unlimited money chest. But to quote another life metaphor it’s not how big it is it’s how you use it.
The America’s Cup is all about technology. Really, really smart technology. And that’s another thing that makes this victory extraordinary. But to appreciate the technology you have to understand it. And understanding the technology in the New Zealand boat is a bit of a challenge. The best way to describe it, think high tech pedal powered boat. Let me explain.
If you look at the New Zealand and American boats they are both catamarans with an aircraft wing for a sail, which is balanced on the top of two canoes that are balanced on top of two or four vertical surfboards. The crews must trim the boat as it flies through the air. The wind provides lift and rudders and foils in the water allow it to manoeuvre. To win, the Kiwis had to be faster, stronger and more manoeuvrable. And that superiority was very evident, very early in the regatta.The New Zealand boat became the first to achieve 100 percent fly time. In other words it was able to complete a race without either of the two hulls touching the water at any time. Flying through the air literally and, depending on the wind, achieving speeds of up to 50 knots or 90 kilometers per hour.
The America’s Cup rules say all teams must sail boats of similar dimension and design, but that still leaves plenty of wriggle room for experimenting with the daggerboards and the hydraulic system for moving the foils and the sail.
And that is where those sneaky Kiwis had it all over Team Oracle. Normally the sails are trimmed by hand powered winches or grinders. It’s hard physical work and it needs to be done quickly to maintain boat speed. But New Zealand produced a stunning innovation. They switched from winch to pedal power. In others words they designed and installed bike like pedal bays in the boat. So spectators were treated to the spectacle of Team New Zealand crew members pedalling furiously to control the carbon fibre wing sail, rudders and the dagger boards. The genius of this innovation meant that unlike Oracle the crew could use their hands for fine-tuning. In a high stakes game like the America’s Cup every little bit counts and can be the difference between winning and losing. The Kiwis were smart enough to realise it was basic physics. Legs produce more power than arms and that power means the team can make necessary adjustments more quickly. And that is exactly what happened. The Americans were simply outsmarted by good old-fashioned Kiwi ingenuity.
Winning the America’s Cup again is huge for New Zealand. It will showcase their innovation and technology as well as their spectacular country and that, in turn, will attract investment. I was living in Auckland when New Zealand was defending the Cup so I know what a big deal it will be. The Auckland harbour will be transformed yet again.
So I take my hat off to New Zealand. The little country, with the very big ideas, that punches above its weight and does it so well. Only this time they delivered a stunning knockout blow and America’s Cup racing will never be the same.