The technology driving Great Britain's America's Cup bid
PUBLISHED: 11:34 30 May 2017
Nick Dimbleby/Jaguar Land Rover 2016
Sir Ben Ainslie is one of our greatest living sportsmen, used to striking gold on his own in a boat. But he’s now embarked on a team quest to win The America’s Cup on behalf of the nation and, as Paul Hudson discovers, technology is driving the bid
Nelson knew a thing or two about sea battles. “Time is everything,” he said. “Five minutes makes the difference between victory and defeat.” Britain’s greatest seafarer was talking about naval warfare, but his words would ring true with Sir Ben Ainslie.
The four times Olympic sailing gold medallist – known as ‘The Guv’ – is a man with a dream for 2017. He is currently in Bermuda where, this month, he hopes to win the America’s Cup for Britain. It’s the oldest trophy in world sport, a prize that predates the modern Olympics, the Ryder Cup and the football World Cup.
And one that Britain has never won.
To help him snatch the silverware known affectionately as the ‘Auld Mug’, Sir Ben has gathered a team of engineers and sailors with a mission to race boats capable of an astonishing 60mph. These are boats so technologically advanced they are described as ‘like a fighter jet on water’ – weighing the same as a London taxi but wrenching themselves out of the ocean on foils the size of ironing boards.
To coax every ounce of speed from the catamarans, the team is borrowing expertise from Formula 1, aerospace, telemetry, automotive and even video gaming. And if Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory could still fire a 24-pounder from its resting place in the former Royal Navy dockyard, it would hit Ainslie’s high-tech HQ in Old Portsmouth’s cobbled streets.
It is here, under the wheeling gulls, on the site of the old fish market that Land Rover BAR (it stands for Ben Ainslie Racing), vowed to make Britons proud as they undertook the final leg of a voyage of technical innovation.
If Sir Ben, whose team’s charity The 1851 Trust is backed by the Duchess of Cambridge, can bring the trophy back to this tiny island, it would be another remarkable chapter in the history of British engineering...and sport.
His young team is aware of this distinguished heritage, but their eyes are on the future. The result of their unstinting efforts is the kind of innovation that sees an airline-style “black box” on the boats transmitting data from sea to land. And a mission control room to process that information which wouldn’t look out of place in a Bond villain’s lair. Chuck in a state of the art gymnasium to condition the crews and it’s clear nothing is being left to chance.
A visit to the HQ at The Camber is to enter a world where laptops have replaced lanyards with support from the team’s Technical Innovation group which includes Land Rover, BT, and BAE. Engineering manager Richard Hopkirk is proud to help drive a new era of maritime design. With a first from Cambridge and a Harvard scholarship, he spent 10 years with the McLaren Formula 1 team before swapping cockpits for catamarans.
His first job is to explain how the boats travel faster than the wind. He shows me a carbon fibre sail, referred to as a “wing”. Its two sections together are the same size as a Boeing 747’s wing, with a similar wide front edge and thin trailing edge. This means air flows over one side of the curved sail faster than the other, creating low pressure on one side and high pressure on the other.
This effect is called the Bernoulli principle and, in the same way that a horizontal plane wing generates upward lift, the vertical sail pulls the boat sideways…and forward.
Richard explains: “By tweaking the angle of the two sections of the wing, the crew can generate more forward power. But they must be careful – too much bend on the flaps can over do it and make the boat stall.”
Sensors on the wings send the crew information via wireless devices on their wrists or on the boat. It helps them adjust the sections for optimum performance.
This power combined with the reduced drag of a catamaran helps the boat achieve 20 knots quickly at which point the two tonne vessel pops out of the water and glides on foils. This is when the boat starts to “fly” and speed can more than double to 60mph.
The team discovered that one metre is the optimum “cruising altitude” but they then face a constant battle to control power and prevent the boat somersaulting, a crash known as a pitchpole. Consequences can be tragic. In May 2013 British Olympic medallist Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed while training for the cup when his Swedish Artemis Racing boat capsized and he was trapped under the hull.
Until recently “chase boats” thundered along side the America’s Cup yachts, recording information to improve performance. They’ve been replaced by a virtual version. Richard explains: “With these catamarans going so fast you can’t really do analysis in a chase boat because you’re banging around. We created a network that beams information back to base. We get video off the boat and we’ve got software to synchronize the data.”
Richard says: “We used to have to wait for the chase boat to get back at 5pm to analyse data. Now the sailors can come back and we can sit down and debate results.”
His admiration for the crews is boundless. He talks warmly of characters such as Bleddyn Mon, who studied Mechanical Engineering Aerospace at Southampton university, spent time with the Red Bull F1 team and during his teens became a World and European medallist in the 29er class.
And he is quick to stress how crew members like Paul Campbell-James (CJ) – who was part of an Italian bid to win the cup – have to be technologically savvy in tough sailing conditions. “We have sensors all over the boat,” Richard explains. “And displays on it showing wind direction and trim targets.
“The crew control the twist of the wing to get as much driving force as possible without tipping over.
“It’s exactly how a sail works but the wing is structurally and aerodynamically more efficient. They can also change the trim of the jib which is the sail on the front of the boat.”
But it doesn’t end there.
Richard goes on: “They also fly the boats by changing the angle of the hydrofoils and the rudders.
“If the wing trimmer CJ puts too much power on the wing the boat capsizes and if he slacks off too much it will crash in the water so he’s constantly trying to adjust the wing.
“Ben, the helmsman is adjusting the rake of the boards and the rudders to control how high the boat flies and steering it left to right as well.”
But in the age of drones and driverless cars, can’t they just do it all from dry land? Richard says: “Control systems on the boat are restricted. You are not allowed to go autopilot. It’s a bit like Formula 1 not being allowed traction control. They have to manually fly it.
“We can radio the race boat from the chase boat but not control it. And we are restricted on what information we are allowed to measure. The spirit of the Cup is that the sailors on the boat should fly it without help.” So how fit are the crews? “Very!” says Richard. “The team have a strength and conditioning coach and do two sessions a day.”
You get the impression the team is here to stay. “We’re about 10 per cent of the size of F1 teams,” says Richard. “F1 teams burn through £300 million a year and have 1000 people. We’re 10 per cent of those values. The classic thing for the America’s Cup has been the Sugar Daddy approach, like Red Bull in F1. A wealthy individual decides they want a boat racing team so they write blank cheques.
“We are going down the more classic Williams McLaren route where you have the Ainslie brand, a privately owned company. It has a number of investors, of which Ben is one, and it gets corporate sponsorship.”
So does all this have the blazer brigade spluttering into their pink gins? Apparently not. “Every team that challenges has to do so under a club and ours is Royal Yacht Squadron Racing,” says Richard.
“The RYS has a long history with the Cup, going back to the beginning. The team are proud of the country’s maritime heritage and we want to bring the Cup home to where it all began.”