Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
2/22/2010
11:06 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Ellison Wins America's Cup; High Tech To Stay On High Seas

It's a technology marvel, the BMW Oracle triple-hull entry that brought home the America's Cup. And that's the problem. The cat -- as in catamaran -- is out of the bag. As much as I love a good piece of technology, when it comes to sailing, I wish the classic test between single-hulled sloops could return to the America's Cup.

It's a technology marvel, the BMW Oracle triple-hull entry that brought home the America's Cup. And that's the problem. The cat -- as in catamaran -- is out of the bag. As much as I love a good piece of technology, when it comes to sailing, I wish the classic test between single-hulled sloops could return to the America's Cup.The Oracle BMW group lead by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, a passionate sailing enthusiast, did a great job of challenging and dispatching the defending Swiss Alinghi boat off the coast of Valencia, Spain, Feb. 12 and 14. His team won the first race by five minutes and the second by more than 15.

In one case the course was a big triangle; in the latter, 20 miles out to sea in a straight line and 20 back. That's what the multi-hulled boats do best, straight line sailing, not too many tacks. In the turns, the multi-hulls don't show their best point of sail as they drop their second -- or in the case of BMW Oracle, second and third hulls -- back into the water and slow down.

The first multi-hull was Dennis Connor's catamaran, the Stars and Stripes, launched in 1988 and used to defend the cup against New Zealand outside San Diego.

At the same time it's breathtaking to watch video of the BMW Oracle. As the wind strengthens, the boat lifts first its 90-foot long windward hull, then its heavier center hull out of the water, skimming along on just the leeward hull. A huge amount of mass is suspended above the water, like a pair of figure skaters racing along executing a lift, a single blade beneath them.

The multihull design means the boat is as wide as it is long--it's 90 feet between those outboard hulls. I can't get used to the image. Is this the America's Cup or just a George Lucas' Dreamworks vision of the future?

The boat was built 100 miles north of Seattle in Anacortes, Washington, because one of Boeing's precision tooling contractors was there. The "wing" as the BMW Oracle data sheet refers to it, was built in nine rigid sections on the mast, each with a flap or extension that can be controlled by hydraulic power to change the sail's "twist," as the publicists say, or "warp," as the Wright brothers would prefer to say. The higher the wind, the more air the sail can either catch or spill from its multi-level parts.

Under optimum circumstances, the "wing" will generate a boat speed three times as fast as the wind. In the maximum 10-knot breeze of the first race, it reached a speed of 30 knots. In stiffer winds, it's been clocked at 40 knots or over 45 miles per hour. Alinghi's entry was another trimaran, but a soft-sail boat. When BMW Oracle set its hard sail just so, it simply accelerated away from it.

That's mainly because the main mast and adjustable, hard sail are 223 feet tall, or significantly larger than the wings of a Boeing 747 or Airbus 380. The landmark Coit Tower in San Francisco, a place from which the next America's Cup regatta may be viewed, stands only 210 feet tall. According to its specifications, the boat's mast is so tall that it can't sail underneath the Golden Gate Bridge at high tide; even at low tide, the top might scrape the bridge.

Maybe the way to halt the march of modernism in sailing is to limit boats to proportions that can be sailed into and out of their home harbors. If they were also still required to be able to be sailed between competing harbors, that would eliminate the multi-hull design. You'd never risk a light weight trimaran in the teeth of a North Atlantic storm. It wouldn't survive it.

The winds are mostly gentle this time of year off the coast of Valencia, Spain, the water flat. When there was risk of it being otherwise, they twice delayed the race. Put another way, if the wind is blowing at 30 knots, do you really want to crash through the waves at 90 miles an hour on an egg shell hull, assuming you stayed upright? The boat would simply demolish itself. But then, even the single hulled boats built recently couldn't be taken out in a storm the way the first America's Cup contestant could be.

Still, I'd like to bring back the America's Cup race that followed a more complex course and involved lots of tacks by two boats maneuvering to steal air from each other or gain the right of way. If multi-hulls are the future, then straight line races will become more standard fare, like drag races on TV.

Ellison to his credit understands all this and more. He understands what's needed to make sailing more accessible and wants to share sailing with a much larger audience. He wants to make it a more easily televised sport, to put cameras and microphones on the boat the way they now hang around the huddle. Such a spirit has been absent from the feeble attempts to televise the America's Cup so far. "You need to tell the audience which boat is ahead, by how much. You need to say what speed the boats are going," he said in plain talk at San Francisco's City Hall, where he met with Mayor Gavin Newsom Saturday to talk about bringing the America's Cup to San Francisco.

But asked at Saturday's ceremony if the America's Cup will return to its single hull format, he wasn't sure of that. The challenger will determine the design selected, and the multi-hulls have been shown to be much faster than traditional designs. Fast designs will be a way to attract youth to the sport and generate excitement in the next America's Cup, if technology advances are kept in the next race, he said. Even if mono-hulls are selected, they will be "a modern version like the RC 44's," a slenderized and lightweight version of a racing boat with little resemblance to the classic America's Cup racing sloop.

Maybe it's time to split the America's Cup in two: an ultra-modern race with the most advanced technology and fastest boats competing with each other; and an America's Cup Classic, with some admittedly 19th Century limitations to what's on the boat. With the latter, it may only be the vagaries of tide and current, the un-predictabilities of winds, and the raw skills of crews on display, but that might not be such a bad show either.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Server Market Splitsville
Server Market Splitsville
Just because the server market's in the doldrums doesn't mean innovation has ceased. Far from it -- server technology is enjoying the biggest renaissance since the dawn of x86 systems. But the primary driver is now service providers, not enterprises.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
InformationWeek Tech Digest - August 27, 2014
Who wins in cloud price wars? Short answer: not IT. Enterprises don't want bare-bones IaaS. Providers must focus on support, not undercutting rivals.
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
InformationWeek Radio
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.