Team Land Rover BAR at sea

Britain bids to win the America’s Cup

Image credit: Lloyd Images

When the America’s Cup gets under way in May, our TV screens will be displaying the fastest and most technologically evolved sailing boats ever seen. So what goes into launching a foiling catamaran? We go behind the scenes with Team Land Rover BAR at its base for the event in Bermuda.

“It’s a bit of a sore point with British sailors that Britain has never won the America’s Cup,” says Sir Ben Ainslie. One of the greatest sailors in the history of the sport, Ainslie is known for his tenacity and timing. If he wants to bring home the ‘Auld Mug’, as it is affectionately known, he’s going to need both. He knows that better than most, as a crew member with the 2013 America’s Cup winner, Oracle Team USA. Yet that’s not enough for the multiple Olympic gold medallist, who now wants to win it for the UK with Land Rover BAR [Ben Ainslie Racing]. “It’s my intention to keep going until we win,” he says.

As team principal, Ainslie is speaking at the Land Rover BAR team base in Bermuda, where the racing will take place. It’s an important time, as today the UK challenger boat, known to date as R1, is to be christened.

Under uncharacteristic stormy grey skies, the sleek charcoal-grey 15-metre boat platform and giant 23.5-metre wing are crane-lifted into the water for the first time. Ainslie’s wife Lady Ainslie (TV presenter Georgie Thompson) is in charge of the champagne moment as she names the boat ‘Rita’. As no one is going to allow her to smash a glass bottle on the carbon-fibre hull, the engineers have jury-rigged a bottle-smashing machine, which fails to work. In order to solve the problem, one of the techie guys attacks the bottle with a hammer, but misses. Georgie puts her head in her hands, while her husband has the air of a man who doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.   

The America’s Cup gets under way at the end of May and will continue through June. It’s one of the most prestigious trophies in sport, but perhaps one of the least well known. There are good reasons for this, not least that sailing isn’t easy to get involved with as a participant at this level. Also, it’s never quite had the media attention it deserves, Ainslie believes, because historically it’s all been a bit dull, with “big slow mono-hulls” slugging it out for hour after hour miles away from the coast.

All that is about to change at the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda, where new competition rules mean races will be short, fast and inshore. “We’ve moved to a format that people can understand,” says Ainslie. “It will be a much better viewing experience on television. With new boat-tracking graphics technology accurate to 3cm, you’ll be able to see clearly what’s going on.”

Six teams will take part in the race series. The defender, Oracle Team USA, will be challenged by teams from New Zealand, Japan, Sweden, France and the UK. All teams have had the opportunity to collect points that can be carried into the competition via qualification at the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series. Land Rover BAR picked up the maximum of two points. On paper all looks well for Ainslie’s challenge, but his team is new and no one has ever won the America’s Cup at the first attempt. Ainslie is bullish, though. “If there ever was a time to do this, this is it. Now we have to go out and make it happen.”

Anatomy of a catamaran

America’s Cup boats are fast, typically reaching speeds of 60mph from 20mph winds. To do this, two very basic things need to work together. They must be light and have the ability to ‘fly’ out of the water. The 2017 boats are 15m-long hydrofoiling catamarans with a rigid sail ‘wing’ covering an area of 103m2. As some of the build specifications, such as construction material, are set out in the rules, all team boats will be essentially the same in overall appearance and operation, leaving the key technical challenges in the three areas of aerodynamics, control systems and human-machine interface. 

Naval architect Andy Claughton is the chief technology officer at Land Rover BAR and “was one of the first guys to begin the team with Ben. He phoned me in autumn 2013 and asked me to come to head up the engineering.” A specialist in aerodynamics and hydrodynamics, Claughton has been associated with the America’s Cup since 1983 in various roles. In 2007 he was technical director for the Emirates New Zealand team in Bermuda. “Ainslie was our B-boat helmsman. That’s how the relationship started. By January 2014 there were six of us sitting around a table.”

Claughton explains that the ‘boat’ (it’s neither a yacht nor a ship) has two main components, the platform and the wing, which “when put together become a hydrofoiling catamaran”.

The hydrofoils essentially replace conventional centre (or ‘dagger’) boards, which are there to prevent the boat from sailing sideways. The hydrofoils are ‘L’-shaped, where the horizontal part of the foil produces vertical lift, which means that “once you’re going fast enough to take off, you can lift the boat completely out of the water, with the boat supported on something the size of two boogie boards.”

Claughton explains that the hydrofoils are deployed singly. “As you tack, you put the other one down. To achieve balance, there are horizontal elevators on the rudder that create a similar effect to a tailplane on an aircraft, giving you a modicum of natural stability while the boat flies on those three points.” In general, speed is achieved by getting as much of the boat out of the water as possible. “Once you start to foil, the amount of boat that is in the water is reduced by about 90 per cent.”

The boats aren’t allowed automatic ride control on the hydrofoil. “Each time you want to adjust the control surfaces the helmsman has to press a button or turn a twist grip. So the helmsman is steering and flying the boat at the same time.”

Claughton says the compounding problem with engineering on the boat is that “every time you want to move a hydraulic function, the energy has to come from manual efforts of the crew”. This is called ‘grinding’ and there are four grinders operating on two pedestals. “You see the guys like hamsters on a wheel, either generating energy to move a hydraulic function directly, or to store energy in an accumulator.”

So four of the six crew members aren’t even sailing? “Well, that’s the great complexity of it,” says Claughton. “You might think that all you need is a couple of big rowers to turn the handles, but you need grinders to be good sailors too, to get the boats around the track. The race isn’t perfectly choreographed, so you always have to be alert to what’s going to happen next. There is this fantastic juggling match where you have to decide if your time is better spent grinding or adjusting controls.”

Back in 2014, Claughton admits that in terms of designing the race boat, “we were nowhere. That’s because one of the great challenges of the America’s Cup is that regulations for the next competition only ever get published after the new defender and his Challenger of Record get together to produce a protocol document (where and when we are going to race) and the class rule that states what the boat will look like. When we started, we didn’t know what the boat was going to look like. We knew that it was going to be a hydrofoiling catamaran, but we didn’t know the length. We didn’t know how much of it would be open for design and how much would be fixed in class rules.”

Reaching a mass audience

Television sports commentator and presenter Tony Husband will be covering the America’s Cup for the BBC. He says that with advances in broadcast graphics, the consumer is about to get a better experience of the event than previously.

“The changes in technology that have led to inshore, close-to-land racing have brought with them a real opportunity for the sport to become viewable to the public in a meaningful way, both watching from the land, but also critically, with the chance to watch on TV and other electronic devices.” Improvements in computer graphics and real-time tracking will mean that TV coverage “will make what was once a difficult sport to follow with the naked eye appealing. New graphics technology will be a real game-changer for sailing.”

Husband says that in previous competitions it was a case of boats sailing off into the distance with a reporter later describing what had happened. “There would be some token television pictures, but it would really be all about the sailors shaking the champagne and lifting the trophy. Now, with foiling technology and digital media exploding in the way it is, you can see that the America’s Cup is looking to push its product.”

So will the next generation of broadcasting technology make the job of the commentator easier than before? “Yes it will, but crucially it will make the viewers’ experience way better, and it will probably give the sport of sailing the big break it needs in terms of reaching a mass audience. Bermuda 2017 will see the fastest, most advanced boats ever racing, close to land with a fantastic scenic backdrop, with the best television technology bringing it to the viewer at home.”

Yet Husband adds a warning. “The America’s Cup has the chance to grow into something huge. But the teams have got to stay out of the courtrooms and concentrate on racing.” 

Britain's bid – the story so far

There’s no doubt about it: the America’s Cup is competitive sailing’s biggest prize. The equivalent to Wimbledon, the Ashes or the FIFA World Cup, it is the oldest trophy in any international sport and Britain has never won it. The British challenger for the 35th America’s Cup in May-June 2017 is team Land Rover BAR, led by Sir Ben Ainslie. The team has the slogan ‘Bring the Cup Home’ and it is competing on behalf of the challenging club, Royal Yacht Squadron Racing.

This is Land Rover BAR’s debut attempt to take the cup, and odds are stacked against them, as no team has ever won on its first outing, but Ainslie says: “If I didn’t think it was possible, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Land Rover BAR is both a sports team and business with a budget of £80m for the Bermuda 2017 campaign, based on 50 per cent commercial funding, with the other half coming through private investment shareholding. The company (previously Ben Ainslie Racing) was founded in 2015 and has already won world-class sailing events in 2015 and 2016, the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series (LVACWS), held in Portsmouth in 2015 and 2016. Its chief executive, Martin Whitmarsh, is a former aerospace engineer and household name from the world of Formula 1 with team McLaren.

The Duchess of Cambridge is the Royal Patron of the 1851 Trust, the official charity of Land Rover BAR, which aims to get 50,000 young people out on to the water by the end of 2017, and which has launched a national STEM education programme.

Land Rover BAR's road to Bermuda


13 September 2013

Ben Ainslie wins 34th America’s Cup with Oracle Team USA.

1 December 2013

After raising £25m in just eight weeks, Ainslie launches Ben Ainslie Racing as UK challenger.

10 June 2014

BAR official launch in presence of the Duchess of Cambridge.

1 July 2014

£6.5m government funding for Portsmouth HQ announced.

20 August 2014

Royal Yacht Squadron Racing Challenge accepted for the 35th America’s Cup, making BAR the official entry.

22 October 2014

Launch of team’s test boat T1.

2 December 2014

Bermuda announced as venue for the 35th America’s Cup.

19 January 2015

BAR become first America’s Cup team to sail a foiling multihull in Bermudan waters.

10 March 2015

Launch of Technical Innovation Group industrial collaborations.

1 April 2015

New ‘America’s Cup Class’ specification reduces boat size to lower bar for team entry.

8 April 2015

Former McLaren F1 boss Martin Whitmarsh joins BAR as CEO.

25 June 2015

BAR announces title and innovation partner Land Rover.

25 July 2015

Team wins Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series in Portsmouth.

5 October 2015

Launch of second test boat, T2.

28 February 2016

Team wins the first 2016 World Series event in Muscat.

12 April 2016

Launch of  third test boat.

6-8 May 2016

175,000 spectators as America’s Cup returns to New York.

22-24 July 2016

Land Rover BAR takes LVACWS lead with Portsmouth win.

18 October 2016

The 1851 Trust launches BT STEM Crew digital education programme.

18-20 November 2016

Wins LVACWS event in Fukuoka to become champions and carry two bonus points to Bermuda.

6 February 2017

Land Rover BAR launches ACC race boat at Bermuda base.

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