Gliding on top of the water is still sailing but not as we know it
Ability for small boats to achieve the thrill the America’s Cup gives is available now
Annalise Murphy competing on her foiling-type Moth dinghy in Dun Laoghaire earlier this summer. Photograph: David Branigan/Oceansport
On a knife-edge outcome of the contest between Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA, it seems entirely appropriate that the most prominent coverage of the America’s Cup this newspaper has given was in yesterday’s Technology leader in the Business Section by Karlin Lillington.
Although the background to the story was the vast resourced Larry Ellison, the multi-billionaire backer of the American defence, the cup has for decades been dominated by technological development that today marks the pinnacle of the sport far distant to more familiar types of sailing.
The days of the venerable 12-metre mono-hulls slugging it out appear megalithic compared to these catamarans regularly achieving speeds of more than 40 knots while barely leaving much of their hulls immersed thanks to the marvel of the hydrofoils that lift the 72-foot yachts clear of the water.
Inevitably, technological development comes at a hefty price that even the wealthiest backers have marginal appetite for.
Winning the world’s oldest sporting trophy does have limited appeal, it seems.
Yet with the tens of millions of dollars required to field a competitive challenge or defence for “the ‘auld mug”, it’s not hard to see why Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton decries the expense and how it blocks more teams from taking part in a more representative contest.
It’s also not hard to see how this pillar of the sport contributes to the notion that sailing is entirely expensive, elitest and inaccessible.
All in all, America’s Cup sailing is a far cry from the more familiar arenas of the numerous dinghy classes, handicap cruiser-racers and smaller cruising yachts that comprise the bulk of the traditional sport.
Added to the price tag for participation, the latest development that progressed from the multihull contest of the 33rd America’s Cup off Valencia four years ago, the foiling capability of these boats has resulted in a disconnect for many supposed purists.
But while more usual forms of this sport do not necessarily always involve huge outlay, very few if any are non-technical even in the classic traditional boats.
Since sailing evolved from a pure form of transport in the 18th century to include leisure and sport, innovation has always delivered a “trickle-down” effect as new inventions are commercially developed at relatively affordable prices.
But the ability for smaller boats to achieve the thrill and excitement that the America’s Cup delivers is already available and the action on San Francisco Bay has simply been an extension of this technology, just on a far larger scale with impressive boat-handling skills to match.
Anyone who has seen the foiling Moth dinghies in action around our coasts over the past two years may struggle not to be mesmerised by the speed and flightiness of these slim, 11-foot long single-handers.
The declared vision of four-times America’s Cup winner Russell Coutts was to bring sailing to a new audience through a combination of speed, visual thrills and ease of viewing.
The price tag and recriminations that always accompany the cup may yet delay the final verdict on the New Zealander’s ambition but the attraction that the technology delivers to younger and newer audiences is a lesson the existing sport can hardly ignore.
It is still sailing, just not as we’ve known it.