During training events for the America’s Cup sailing race in decades past, fast and light boats would zip close to race boats. Onboard photographers then clicked images and shot videos, providing competitors with insights into new designs and operational tactics.
At the 2021 America’s Cup in New Zealand, the seas churned so full of these craft—think paparazzi chasing royalty—that the risks of potential collisions turned glaring.
‘After the last America’s Cup, it was getting a little crazy,’ explained Magnus Wheatley, who now runs the Recon program for the 37th America’s Cup. ‘There were an awful lot of chase boats, and very close incidents. Obviously, if you are told to take a picture bow on, you’re going to drive your RIB [rigid inflatable boat] bow onto a boat coming at you at 45 knots. It can get very dangerous, and was just getting unmanageable.’
This scenario resulted in an organization paradigm shift by race organizers. The America’s Cup Recon program now assigns each individual racing team with a boat and photographer to gather on-water images and data about their own sail craft. However, the total of gathered information is now shared amongst all competitors. What was industrial espionage has transformed into crowdsourced collaboration.
The risk of collision obliterated collusion.
This approach not only reduces risks of offshore accidents, but also reduces costs for race teams.
‘It was introduced as a cost cutting measure, to avoid every team following every other team,’ explained Benjamin Muyl, Chief Designer for the French Team Orient Express. ‘For us this is also a good source of information.’
This idea for the Recon program originated during the last America’s Cup race. Wheatley explained.
‘Dan Bernasconi, Technical Director at Emirates Team New Zealand, came up with the idea. He’s a British yacht designer who used to work with Formula 1. He thought—let’s open technology up a bit.’
Much interest relates to the shape and performance of foils—hydrodynamic appendages that translate horizontal movement through water into vertical lift that pushes most of a boat above water—allowing it to move far faster through air. The term ‘canting a foil’ relates to how these underwater appendages are rotated and turned.
Crews of chase boats typically look at the design of boats they follow. ‘That’s key,’ Wheatley continued. ‘They’re also looking at sail shape and modes of the boat—how you cant foils, how you change the arm of the foils, because you can ride low, high, bow down, stern down, windward heel, leeward heel. They’re marrying that to wind conditions and saying, ‘Okay, it’s 18 knots of breeze, and Emirates Team New Zealand is riding like this.’ They’re reporting that information back in real time to their bases. They’ll be recording speed, and any variable that they can possibly get. It’s an extremely expensive program to run, and you need highly skilled people.
‘So we decided to level the playing field. To keep costs down we brought in the Recon program so that every team is assigned a RIB driver and a photographer, and the photographer can accept requests from other teams. We have an internal cloud where teams can ask, for example —’Could you take a picture of the jib or of the main sail?’ All sorts of requests come in. In free training, when the boats are not in a race, RIB drivers try to get as close as they can—whether in Barcelona or Pensacola or wherever they’re training around the world—and get footage, video, data. We produce a Recon report every day for every team when they go out racing—with very accurate wind data, timings. Every tack is recorded, every jibe. From that, teams can access a spreadsheet and extrapolate data. They can run their own models and simulations. They can analyze videos using artificial intelligence.
‘We thinks it’s positive. It’s much safer. The Recon teams don’t have the telemetry coming off the boat, which is the team’s intellectual property. They follow behind boats and keep a respectful distance. There are parameters—they can go within 25 meters [80 feet], and dockside—as the teams bring in new foils, new rudders, these can all be photographed from the dock at a 50 meter [164 feet] distance.
‘We’re also looking to bring the story to the public with small details. Say, ‘American Magic is running the fifth iteration of the G foil, and the difference between that and the last foil is …’ All that data is in the cloud for anybody within the America’s Cup structure to look at.’
Wheatley recalls a famous incident before the 1983 America’s Cup, when two underwater divers were spotted trying to see the shape of a keel on the race boat of the team from Australia.
For the 2024 America’s Cup race, the boats to be used by all contestants known as AC75’s are still under construction. Because they have not yet entered the water, the boats have not been exposed to the scrutiny of the Recon program. This means speculation still circulates. For example, why is the applied sciences division of a major car manufacture now involved with the design of one boat? Could it be because of their experience with gear boxes, or with mechatronics?
‘There are very few people in the world that have been inside an AC75,’ Wheatley said. ‘There’s an awful lot that we can’t see. And there is a lot of new thinking that is going into how they trim sails, particularly to promote and maintain flight.’
The allure of America’s Cup mysteries endures.