Five of us are in an inflatable boat, engine at idle, maybe 150 feet from the Land Rover BAR America’s Cup catamaran, which is sitting still in the crystal-blue water in Bermuda’s Great Sound. We are waiting for something to happen.
Suddenly, a yell, and the Rover BAR boat takes off. Its hull quickly lifts off the water like a woman raising her skirts before she tiptoes across a puddle. Only the comparatively tiny hydrofoils make contact with the sea, scarcely leaving a wake. How the Land Rover BAR accelerates from a dead stop using nothing but wind power generated by its 78-foot-tall wing sail is simply stunning.
Our inflatable’s powerful outboard engine roars to keep up. Thirty-five knots, or 40 mph, might not sound like much, but on the choppy water we hold on tight to watch the catamaran at speed. The Rover BAR boat goes faster, and we go faster. It’s a manmade force of nature, remarkable to behold from so close.
It’s majestic, like all the America’s Cup boats are. And this one is just that much more interesting because of the automotive connection. Land Rover is the entry’s main sponsor, supplying not only money but also technology, ranging from wind-tunnel time to a multifunction steering wheel to the company’s expertise in computational fluid dynamics.
At the helm is Charles Benedict Ainslie, 40, who helped win the last America’s Cup in 2013 in San Francisco for American billionaire Larry Ellison’s Oracle Team USA as a tactician. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Ainslie is a superstar in this sailing world, especially back home in England, and he is likely the only man who could assemble the financing required to build a new team and a new boat for the 2017 America’s Cup. BAR—not to be confused with Formula 1’s former British American Racing—stands for Ben Ainslie Racing.
His campaign is a simple one: Bring the America’s Cup home to Great Britain after 166 years without a win. To a large extent the last team that wins dictates what sort of boat the next America’s Cup will use as well as when the race will take place and where. That this is just the 35th running of the America’s Cup, which began in 1851, gives you an idea of the long gaps between races.
Ainslie has the credentials and the charisma to pull off this massive enterprise, all the more remarkable given the size of the sponsorship investment: a budget somewhere in the neighborhood of $120 million. That would buy you a year with a midlevel F1 team—an appropriate comparison because America’s Cup has been called the F1 of the seas—or the season-long sponsorship of four or five of the top-running NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series cars.
The F1 comparison is especially appropriate for Land Rover BAR. The chairman of the organization is Martin Whitmarsh, former CEO of McLaren Racing and ex-team principal for the McLaren-Mercedes F1 team. He joined Land Rover BAR in March 2015.
“Jaguar Land Rover’s input to the final boat design has been hugely significant for us. As the relationship grew, so did their level of involvement,” Whitmarsh says. “The America’s Cup has always been a sailing and design race, and the boats have developed from ropes and winches to more technical machines that will fly out of the water at up to 60 mph.” This, he says, opens up an opportunity for automotive companies “to make a significant impact in the design race—very much like in F1.”
How much money Land Rover is pumping into BAR’s bank account is unclear, but it’s a lot, not counting the technological assistance. This year Land Rover used the America’s Cup connection to help launch the new Discovery SUV, and apparently it was satisfied that it got its money’s worth because it already announced it will be aboard for the next America’s Cup, to be held in New Zealand.
That’s because the Emirates Team New Zealand won the June 2017 edition, ending Ainslie’s quest in the Bermuda semifinals and denying Oracle Team USA its third straight championship. The plucky Kiwis are traditionally the bad boys of America’s Cup, with a reputation for doing things their own way. Of the six teams, it was the only one to refuse to sign a pre-race framework agreement that would have provided a rough outline for how, where, and when future America’s Cup races will be run. Principal to that agreement is retaining the current, basic catamaran design for the near future and racing every two years.
Certainly they were responsible for a major innovation in 2013—the ability to harness aerodynamics to make the entire boat lift out of the water, reducing drag fourfold. “Foiling” was not an innovation per se, but no one thought a 72-foot catamaran could do it. The 2017 boats are shorter, incidentally, about 50 feet long, but they weigh in around 4,000 pounds.
“Foiling” the ability to harness aerodynamics to make the entire boat lift out of the water, reducing drag fourfold.
New Zealand scored another modern-day first this year, with a major innovation in “grinding.” The America’s Cup boats can’t use any sort of stored energy such as electricity and batteries, so hydraulic power operates the equipment, replacing, for instance, ropes that used to control the sails. And to generate that hydraulic power, you need grinders: four beefy men, aerodynamically placed on their knees, each furiously turning an apparatus that looks like a bicycle’s pedals. That provides the hydraulic pressure that is needed constantly but most of all when the boat makes a turn.
Team New Zealand had their grinders operate the pedals with their feet instead of their hands—imagine a stationary bicycle—a major curiosity during our time in Bermuda for pre-event testing. Which is better? “I guess we’ll see,” Ainslie says. Whether foot-grinding won for the Kiwis is unclear, but it didn’t hurt.
In informal postmortems of the 35th America’s Cup, Ainslie suggested they were perhaps too conservative with the boat design, christened Rita when it was unveiled at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda last February. And the comparatively late start in forming the team put it six months behind the central competitors.
But now, for the next America’s Cup, the only thing we know for sure is that it will be run in New Zealand, likely on one of three courses, all near Auckland. There’s a possibility the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, which is calling the shots for the 36th running, will dump the current catamaran design for a mono-hull. We should know for sure by the time you read this, but there’s no rush to get tickets. Expect the next America’s Cup to take place in 2021. And expect Land Rover BAR to be ready.