Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Racing the Wind

I was tempted to call this post "For the glory of the skies," which is the next line of the hymn "For the beauty of the earth" that I used two posts back. But although the skies--or at least the wind--are a large part of my subject, the sea is almost as important. Normally I would say as important, but when I see a sailboat zipping along at almost 50 miles per hour with only three small points of contact with the water, I think the wind has a greater influence on it.

The America's Cup, a sailing race started in 1851 in England, is being held in San Francisco this year. It has changed a lot since 1851. The race isn't held at regular intervals; it's held whenever another country issues a challenge to the country that won the previous race and currently holds the cup. The yacht America won the first race in 1851, taking home what was then called the "100 Guinea Cup." The cup was renamed "America's Cup" after the yacht that had won it. The US won 25 challenges before losing the cup to Australia in 1983, and by then the name was pretty well established.

If horse racing is "the sport of kings," the America's cup is the sport of billionaires and/or large corporations. The current defender is referred to as Oracle Team USA, and the other teams are Artemis Racing (Sweden), Luna Rossa (Italy), and Emirates Team New Zealand.

An interesting feature of this competition is that the defender, subject to agreement from the official challenger, gets to make a lot of the rules. One of the major things covered by the rules is boat design, and the boats they're using now are not traditional yachts. A yacht used to have only one hull. The Oracle boat that won in 2010 had three. This time they're down to two hulls (a catamaran), but instead of regular sails, they have a wing, something like an airplane wing pointing up. There is a smaller sail called a jib in front of the wing, but New Zealand beat Italy on July 21, despite losing their jib in the third of seven legs of the race, so it is possible to handle the boat without it. The boats are beautiful to watch, especially when their speed gets above 20 knots, both hulls come up out of the water, and it's hard to say whether the crew is sailing the boat or flying it. Check out their YouTube channel. Not only do they have beautiful video clips, but they also broadcast the races live.

The really interesting thing about the design is that these boats can sail faster than the wind when they're sailing upwind. Downwind, they can go about twice as fast as the wind behind them.

They're racing the wind, and they're winning the race.