One figure stands out head and shoulders above the rest in the technical specification of the new F50 class - 53 knots, the boat’s anticipated top speed.
Just 10 years ago, this would have smashed the outright world speed sailing record with ease. Until then, exceeding 50 knots (60mph/100kph) had proved so elusive that it was widely considered to be sailing’s sound barrier. Yet today, the prospect of racing at this pace proves just how far modern design and technology have driven the sport.
But to achieve this has required a clear vision, confidence and a Herculean effort. At 50-feet long, powered by an efficient wingsail and flying on hydrofoils, the DNA of the new F50 catamaran is clear to see. While the new boat is a derivative of the last America’s Cup and may look the same on the outside, under the skin the new machines are very different beasts and even more advanced. From their slender low-drag hydrofoils, to complex fly-by-wire control systems and sophisticated electro-mechanical actuators, the new F50 doesn’t just extend the boundaries of modern design and technology, but defines a new generation of racing machines. Just as with any pioneering project, striking the balance between existing technology and new innovations is key.
“The technologies that we’ve developed stem from all of the lessons learned over the past 10 years in foiling multihulls. We've taken the best of those lessons and enhanced the boats such that they will be really exciting to sail but will also provide close competition between the teams.”
Russell Coutts, SailGP CEO
Yet to create a fleet of six identically matched, sophisticated and complex 50-foot flying cats in time for the opening event in Sydney next month was a colossal task that has required in excess of 100,000 man hours. The build project was carried out by Core Builders Composites in New Zealand and started by taking three of the former Cup boats that were used in Bermuda in 2017 and stripping them back to basics. In addition, three new boats were built along identical lines to produce a total of six new platforms that would comply with the newly created F50 one design class rules.
“The biggest configuration change is in the cockpit layout,” explained Brad Marsh, SailGP tech team operations manager. “We've now changed it from a six-, to a five-crew boat. We have only one grinding pedestal now, it used to be two, so to make up the power that’s required to handle the boat, we've got lithium-ion batteries providing unlimited power for the hydraulics.”
Introducing electrical power also allowed the new designs to incorporate fly-by-wire control systems that ensure crews can sail the boat faster and more efficiently. From fighter jets to Formula 1 cars and even ABS systems on ordinary road cars, fly-by-wire technology provides a means of improving performance beyond the level at which it could be achieved by purely manual systems. This in turn has meant that a new generation of higher-performance daggerboards can now be used.
“The daggerboards are faster than the ones we had in Bermuda because we were able to access parameters, materials and processes that weren't available in the Cup last time,” continued Marsh. In essence, slender section, low-drag foils built from high-spec carbon fiber.
The flip side was that building the foil appendages was a time consuming business. “We've built 14 high-speed boards and 14 light-air boards, along with 14 new rudders. The rudders also have two configurations with a high-speed horizontal component and a light-air horizontal component,” he said.
Such advanced technology has taken time to develop, yet all the while the date of the first event in Sydney loomed. Few were more aware of this deadline than double Olympic medalist and former America’s Cup helmsman Nathan Outteridge, who was the helmsman of the test crew for the boats.
“There were a lot of things to sign off on in a short space of time and one of the things that helped us massively was using the Artemis Technology simulator,” he said. “Being able to simulate changes to the software in a controlled environment was crucial. I spent three days on the simulator in the UK before flying down to New Zealand and going sailing. That probably saved us a month in development time.”
The initial sailing trials took place in Whangerei in New Zealand’s Northland region and ran for almost 10 weeks.
“The first trials provided a validation of all the configuration changes we had made to the boats. Then we invited each of the sailing teams down to sail the new boat. It was incredibly beneficial for us to validate the equipment and it was also useful for the teams to get a feel for what they needed to do in their preparation for Sydney.”
Brad Marsh, SailGP tech team operations manager
“We came away from the trial period having learned a lot about the boats, a lot about the teams and expectations for SailGP going forward," continued Marsh. "But it also gave us the practice of working from the custom containers that we have built. We have built 58 that will go on tour, so our time in Whangerei was also a trial of all of that.”
But with the six boats completed and on their way to Sydney the pressure was still on for Marsh and his team.
“The biggest challenge that we're facing as we move forward is the scale,” he said. “These boats are extremely complicated and technical boats. They're difficult to build, difficult to assemble, difficult to launch and they're very difficult to sail. In Bermuda, we had teams of 120. Here we are now having to build, develop, fit out, assemble, launch and test sail six boats. So the scale becomes phenomenal.
"While we have one design parts and we can mass produce things, there's still no substitute for time. To run six boats you need a lot of people, or a lot of time. So for us, the scale of the overall project remains the biggest challenge.”
And it is the scale of this project that will be on show come the first event in Sydney, as the world’s fastest race boats embark on an ambitious world tour. A high octane series that many believe will mark a huge step forward for the sport.