AC Breaking

close to the edge

Shanghai Sailor’s nostalgic Cup piece Then And Now last week touched a nerve with encyclopedic SA’er “The Jay,” who took issue with the concept of the America’s Cup as the sport’s leading edge of development.  Check it, and join the conversation here.

SS writes some great posts but when it comes to the piece from the front page it seems that he may be off the ball. The basic tenet of the piece is wrong. The AC has rarely, if ever, been “at the forefront of yachting development”. It has been involved in some development, but it’s generally just been refining small-boat ideas for big-boat use. Let’s look at the claims that were made about the J Class on the front page;
“Rigs went from single spreader to multi spreaders….rigs that were so much higher and more efficient with Bermudan Rigs, as large a change from the old gaff rigs to the new rig as wings are to soft sails.”
The AC did not lead this process at all. Bermudan rigs came into international yacht racing in the mid-1890s at the Seawanhaka Cup, a quarter of a century before they were first used in the AC. Bermudan rigs and multiple spreaders came into big boats in 1921, when the 112 foot cutter Nyria was redesigned to take a bermudan rig with triple spreaders. There were also three 23 Metres racing with bermudan rig (Astra, Cambria and Candida) before the rig was ever used in the AC. It also seems that the old US AC boats Resolute and Vanitie had been converted to bermudan after their AC careers but before any bermudan boat had raced in the AC.  The facts are clear – not only did the AC not lead the way for the whole sport, it didn’t even lead the way for 130 footers.
“sails like genoas and spinnakers (both or which owe their developments to the J-Class era.”
Nope. Depending on who you believe, genoas came from Manfred Curry and his renjollen dinghies, or Sven Salen in Six Metres, or Francis Herreshoff before he designed an AC challenger. Modern style “parachute spinnakers” only came into the Cup in 1934, many years after they had been adopted in smaller boats. In fact AC legend Sherman Hoyt wanted “parachute spinnakers” banned from the J Class because they were unseamanlike.
What actually happened was that the AC boats held on to multiple small jibs longer after small boats had moved to genoas. Almost all of the first crop of Js had triple headsails. Only the last to be launched, Whirlwind, came out with twin headsails. This was a quarter of a century after the bermudan sloop had first raced in an international yacht race. As Uffa Fox noted, Whirlwind was already behind “the single headsail rig of the future”, which had already been in use in boats like Twelve Metres for years. So again, the AC did not lead the way, but lag behind.
“Those sails were in grooves or tracks up the mast instead of secured by hoops as with gaff rigs increasing aerodynamically, the efficiency. Aluminium made its appearance, as lighter than wood as carbon is now lighter than ally and even a form of wing mast made its appearance on what many people consider the greatest J-Class of all, Ranger.’
Yep, duralumin/aluminium was first used in the AC boats, but not on Ranger. And the mast’s creator didn’t think they were “a form of wing mast” or had track slides instead of hoops for what we would call a good reason. The shape was to give them strength and “diminished, rather than added to, the effectiveness of mast and sail on the wind…..The track on the after side of the mast which carries the luff of the mainsail is .an unfortunate necessity of the jib-headed rig.”
Of course, any claim that the second or third series of Js were like the AC50s is fatally flawed by the fact that the later Js were intended to be racer/cruisers – built to Lloyds so they did and could sail across oceans; carrying 7 tons of accommodation down below including a palatial owner’s stateroom and sometimes a bath; and with heavy masts built to rule restrictions. The British Js often raced around the coast week after week, like the earlier AC boats. They were rarely just day-racing boats like the AC50s. Yes, some had advanced equipment but not always – Rainbow used 27 year old winches!
However, while the masts on some of the Js were advanced, the hulls were extremely conservative. As Fox and others noted at the time, Js like Enterprise were very, very similar in hull shape to Britannia,designed in 1893. A class that has the same sort of hull as a boat about 30 years older is hardly bleeding edge in many ways. As Burgess, the man who created that first aluminium mast noted, “our latest America’s Cup yachts are more like the Gloriana in hull form (ie an 1890s design) than those of 30 years ago.”
“Rod rigging – common place on modern race boat with now steel being replaced by carbon leading to the modern E6 rigging on the highest end boats”
Rod rigging wasn’t invented in the AC; Burgess noted that rod rigging had been used in small boats beforehand. I think you’ll find that carbon rigging was also used outside of the AC for years. By the way BBurgess, who brought rod rigging into the AC, said that the Js did “not even contribute to the development of yachting as a true sport apart from the satisfaction of an illogical national vanity.”
“In 1987, after every 12 Metre before her had been aluminium the New Zealand plastic (cheater as Dennis Conner accused her of being) boat nearly carried all before her”That’s a classic example of the AC boats dragging the development chain. By 1987, fibreglass was old hat in every other class. ‘Glass ocean racers had been around since the Bounty II came out in 1956. Foam sandwich ocean racers had been around since the ’60s. Maxis had been made in fibreglass and foam sandwich since 1971. Carbon ocean racers had been around for about six years. Running 31 to 16 years behind the times is not leading edge.
“We had the NZ ‘Big Boat Challenge….the full on wing mast made its first appearance in this match.” The “full on wing mast” had been around since the 1950s in small boats, and since the 1970s in C Class cats. Wing masts had been used in ocean racing multis since 1968. Once again, the AC was dragging the chain by decades. Let’s not even get into designs like assymetrics, bowsprit poles, exotic masts, planing hulls, light displacement, film sails or the many other areas where the AC has lagged eons behind small boats and shorthanded racers.
The idea that the AC is leading edge seems to be comparatively modern. The fact is that the event started with a boat designed from a workboat, which was beaten before it left the USA, and with challengers that were cruising boats, and ever since then the heritage and value of the AC has laid in the conservative refinements of ideas that are then used in mainstream monohulls, not in blazing trails in the far reaches of design.
Sorry if it seems like I’m taking potshots at you SS, but the history of the event doesn’t bear you out.