The America’s Cup Explained

Define “is.”

Define “having.”

Define “adjustable while racing.”

Take two aspirin.

Call me in October.

Or please, please, cancel the hysteria about canceling America’s Cup 34 and going to the courts of New York instead. It’s distantly imaginable, I reckon. Define “distant.”


And yes, it appears to be a fact, as you may have read elsewhere, that the mechanisms of resolving the dispute du jour between Emirates Team New Zealand/Luna Rossa and Oracle Team USA/AC Race Management do not stop short of the courts, unless a bargain is reached or someone gives in on something.

I won’t be invited to that meeting.

But the argument over rudder elevators and what is permitted or prohibited is a lot more intricate than anything I’ve seen represented so far. As I describe it below, read along with this question in mind: Is the matter so onerous that New Zealand’s managing director, Grant Dalton, will pull the plug on racing and go to court and explain to the people and government of his proud island nation, “We decided to sue the bastards instead.” And then explain to Mr. Emirates Air Lines that there’s a small adjustment to the business model, and a trifle of extra funding will be needed for the next year or two as we go toe to toe with Larry Ellison’s legal team but don’t worry. There’s plenty in it for you because your name will be in the press every time we head to court.

Patrizio Bertelli’s legal team for Luna Rossa has taken the public lead, and the Prada empire can of course fund a legal battle about an issue they regard as performance related, not safety related. The implications for Team KZ would be the same, unless Prada wants to fashionably expand. The threat to the event is nuclear, so it must be a fascinating game of cards there in the back room.

Of a number of proposed “safety changes,” Dalton recently told Dana Johanssen of the New Zealand Herald, “We’re not opposed to any of the rules that are genuinely there for safety. It’s really down to one point and that is rudder elevators. We don’t believe this change is in the interest of safety, we think it’s unnecessary and it gives potential advantage to another team, for complicated reasons which no one would understand.”

Try me, I said.

Photo © Gilles Martin-Raget

And that is how I wound up talking to Dan Bernosconi of New Zealand’s design team, a Kiwi (by his accent) who specializes in velocity prediction programs, foils and appendages. I started out by noting that the relevant proposed change permits elevators on the rudders to be “adjusted until warning signal.” The relevant passage in the AC72 design rule, Section 8.6, reads, “Rudders shall not have components such as trim tabs or moveable winglets that can be adjusted while racing.” Under the Definitions of the Racing Rules of Sailing, a boat is not racing until its preparatory signal, so what’s the beef?

“When you adjust the angle of an elevator, that can slightly adjust the flotation,” Bernosconi said, and under the AC72 rule, “if you change the geometry of appendages, you need a new certificate.”

That, of course, Oracle could arrange, with the disadvantage that a certificate would have to be selected from a quiver of certificates and declared by 8 pm the night before racing. No matter how good your weather info is, it’s easier to make the call on the morning of, as opposed to the night before. We’re talking about wind strength, which is pretty predictable, plus sea state, which builds from the interaction between current (which will be pretty well known) and breeze.

Dan’s an engineer, not a PR spokesman, but if my antennae were reading correctly, even the bit we’ve just covered about timing and adjustments is not a big, big deal to ETNZ—not that they’re ready to walk away from it—and, he did say, “It’s great to be getting close to racing.”


“The current issue,” Bernosconi said, “is the span of the elevators. The rule says they cannot extend beyond the maximum beam of the hull. That’s always been in there. Now [Regatta Director Iain] Murray proposes removing that restriction. We have reason to believe that Oracle has already been sailing with elevators outside of maximum beam. In our design, we deliberately positioned our rudders forward so that we could have the appendages we want. And you have to ask, if the rudder extends beyond maximum beam, and someone falls overboard at speed, how is this a safety improvement?”

I get from the above that more elevator area is good, enhancing fore and aft stability enough to compensate for the added resistance, and Oracle wants more. And I personally doubt that extended elevators pose a significant safety risk to the sailors, but the question, as posed, resonates. How is it a safety improvement?

Better control? ETNZ and Luna Rossa will contend that it’s not their problem if somebody else made the wrong bet.

And it’s not as though the Kiwis don’t know how to keep the needle in. Or perhaps it’s purely an accident that the exhibit of the 1988 Big Boat challenger at the Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum in Auckland has a signboard where Dennis Conner’s name is misspelled . . .


At this point, probably, we’ve stirred up a lot of what’s on the table at that meeting I don’t get to attend. No longer a point of contention, but worth remembering, is that we’re talking about adjustable rudder elevators only because the New Zealand design team found a workaround for an AC72 design rule that was written to prevent foiling. Good ole 8.6, the prohibition of horizontal appendages that could be “adjusted while racing,” was supposed to take care of that.

No adjustables, no foiling.

In every other foiling boat that I know of, notably Moth dinghies, C-Cats and Hydroptere, the pitch control, nose-up or nose-down, is handled by adjustable surfaces at the back of the boat. Just as an airplane’s elevators are placed back yonder, for leverage. But not on these boats.

I find it an “interesting times” observation that the Oracle team is grumbling only in the background about the fact that Pete Melvin was both a chief architect of the AC72 design rule and part of the ETNZ design team that cracked the rule by mounting their legal, goes-straight-up and goes-straight-down daggerboards inside mechanisms (I call them cassettes) that can then be raked or canted to provide pitch control via a lifting foil. That is, the pitch control is more or less centered fore and aft, and the winglets on the rudders are something to leverage against. Luna Rossa, being a near copy of the first KZ boat, follows suit. Oracle and Artemis both objected as soon as ETNZ took off foiling and carried their case to the International Jury—this was in the fall of 2012—and the International Jury (with backing from Race Management) ruled that there was no specific language to prohibit such a mechanism, so it was allowed.

Further points:

America’s Cup Race Management and the International Jury receive their pay from seed money put out there by Larry Ellison.

Oracle and Artemis redesigned and rebuilt their boats, and adjusted their expectations, as a result of the jury ruling.

The game includes larger daggerboards—apparently necessary for stable foiling—and the tortured processes whereby those daggerboards measure-in as class legal would not (I believe) hold up in any realm of sailing outside the bubble of the America’s Cup.

Mod 70s are racing inshore and on the ocean in Europe, without a lot of handwringing.

The MOD70 Spindrift more than drifting

And I still know where to go to get an argument going about 1983 (wow, that was a contentious year) and whether or not Australia II, the boat that took the Cup away from the USA, was a legal 12 Meter.

Now do you understand the America’s Cup?

As launched, Oracle’s first boat was not a “foiler” as we are using the word, to indicate a boat that can lift its hull(s) above the water surface. Then came the crash of October 16, and when that boat reappeared in February it was a foiler, but with the daggerboards still in their original position, forward of the forward crossbeam . . .

Photo © Gilles Martin-Raget

The new Oracle boat has its daggerboards positioned where New Zealand and Luna Rossa have theirs, at the intersection of hull and crossbeam . . .

Photo © Gilles Martin-Raget

Months ago, Oracle tactician John Kostecki observed that, with trimmable winglets on the rudders, the boats would be “a lot safer.” But that is not relevant to the safety conversation of the moment. No one is asking to be trimming rudder elevators during competition. We’re too far down the road to go back to the original design table and reimagine the boats.

I bring this up merely to show what a long, strange trip it’s gonna be. The World Series has a Silly Season. The Superbowl has a Silly Season. The America’s Cup . . .

I queried Oracle Team USA, who responded by email:

A statement from ORACLE TEAM USA General Manager Grant Simmer:

“The proposed rudder wing rule means we have to build new rudder winglets. They form part of a bundle of new rules being implemented by Iain Murray after the Safety Review Committee, chaired by Iain, met with all Teams. We believe this bundle of rules will increase the safety of sailors on all teams.

“Iain Murray was elected by the teams, and his role as Regatta Director is equivalent to the Commissioner in other sports. After consultation with the teams, we believe he is acting in the best interests of the sport and the competitors as a whole.

“It’s common practice in the America’s Cup for rules advisers and lawyers to negotiate competitive issues. However, we don’t believe safety issues should be negotiated in this fashion.”

Grant was part of the Aussie team that took the Cup away from the New York Yacht Club after 132 years. There’s not much he hasn’t seen. But I am reminded as I write that 1983 was a year in which the Challenger talked a lot, and filled the notebooks of the press, while the Defender released the occasional statement.

Anyhow, A.G. pings in from his redoubt in the Turks and Caicos to ask when this will be resolved, and I’m glad he asked, because I seem to hear a voice whispering from deep inside the pundaficatorium, reminding me that the 34th match for the America’s Cup does not start until September 7.

And Tiny Tim said, “God bless us every one.”


You compulsives will want to check out Interpretation No. 38 released today by the AC Measurement Committee, on fine-tuning the definition of stored energy—Kimball



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