It’s almost a given in yacht-racing circles that whichever team makes the best use of technology will win the next America’s Cup competition. The tech-based innovations over the past decade in boat aerodynamics, hydrofoils, control systems, and wingsail design have been particularly game-changing.
Yet when we asked Ian “Fresh” Burns, director of performance for two-time defending America’s Cup champion ORACLE TEAM USA, whether the sailors themselves are becoming less important in that technical context, he was having none of it.
“These guys are very, very skilled at taking what was intended and putting it well past what was intended, putting their own spin on how to use that technology,” Burns explains. “So despite what the engineers may design and develop, to date we’ve never seen a flattening of that curve. If anything, the human factor has actually become more of a differentiator as we go on with these higher- and higher-performing machines.”
For example, America’s Cup sailors have had to learn the complexities and nuances of “flying” their catamarans above water in the volatile foiling mode, where split-second tradeoffs between speed and stability can make the difference between victory and defeat. A goal for all six teams that will compete in the upcoming America’s Cup qualifiers and finals, to be held on Bermuda’s Great Sound in May and June, is for their hulls to never touch water during the race series. ORACLE TEAM USA managed to fly above water for only about half the time during the races culminating in its America’s Cup victory on San Francisco Bay in September 2013.
“The boats are so extreme now, and they’re pushed so far to the edge, that the crew can really mess things up,” says ORACLE TEAM USA’s skipper and helmsman, Jimmy Spithill, who led the team to its historic come-from-behind 9 to 8 victory over Emirates Team New Zealand in the last America’s Cup finals. “You can’t sail these boats perfectly. You constantly make mistakes, and every mistake potentially is a pass. Or worse, it can be almost catastrophic. Whereas in the past, with the monohulls, you could make a heap of mistakes, like rip a sail, now it’s different. The guys are wearing their safety gear, dressed like they’re going into combat.”
There was a time when America’s Cup crews included a few out-of-shape 40-, 50-, and even 60-somethings—accomplished sailing tacticians, if not top physical specimens. The boats were relatively slow-moving and therefore not as much of a challenge to maneuver, Burns says.
Now, with only six sailors onboard the smaller, 49-foot catamarans that will compete in May and June, and with America’s Cup rules that continue to forbid onboard automation and artificial power, pushing these boats to their maximum speeds (50 to 60 mph) is ever more physically demanding.
As a result, the men are younger (the average age of an ORACLE TEAM USA crew member is now around 30), stronger, and fitter than ever before. With the help of data on everything from the crew members’ heart rates and lactic acid levels to the torque they produce while grinding the winch handles that help power these super-yachts, each ORACLE TEAM USA sailor gets the benefit of a personalized conditioning and nutritional program to maximize his performance.
That data is collected from custom-programmed sensors attached to crew members and fed into a powerful Oracle Exadata database for analysis. It’s a literal embodiment of the benefits of big data and the Internet of Things.
Informed by that data, ORACLE TEAM USA crew members are training 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week in the months before the America’s Cup, burning 7,000 to 8,000 calories per day. The regimen includes early morning weightlifting and intense workouts on specialized machines that mimic the onboard winch grinding; briefings and assignments later in the morning; rigorous on-water training in the afternoon; followed by a physical checkup and more briefings into the evening hours.
Crew members are also subjected to a series of mental exercises and challenges—memory puzzles, problem-solving—during their physical training to prepare them for the tough race conditions: exertion to the point of exhaustion while having to make quick decisions amid almost constant blasts of salt water.
Mental and Physical Challenge
Spithill himself is a prime example of the combination of physical prowess and preternatural ability to learn on the fly that’s the right stuff of America’s Cup sailors.
Pierre-Marie Belleau, director of business development with ORACLE TEAM USA innovation partner Airbus, relates how Spithill fared on an Airbus flight simulator during a tour of the aircraft maker’s facilities in Toulouse, France. After initially failing to land the simulated plane, amid grins by the test pilots looking on, Spithill proceeded to execute perfect landing after perfect landing, even with wind gusts and other complications added to the simulation. Recalls Belleau: “The test pilots were smiling a little bit less.”
The 37-year-old Spithill, a multiple world champion in both fleet and match yacht racing, has since earned his pilot’s license to better understand wingsails.
“Now, not only do you need to be a great sailor and possess those skills, but you also need to be a great athlete,” Spithill says. “And you need to be able to think under real pressure. You can compare it to life: Usually the times you make mistakes in life are the times you’re under stress and under pressure. It’s actually dropped a lot of people out of this game. A lot of guys can’t cut it now. But on the flip side, that’s just evolution.”
He compares the evolution of professional yacht racing to other pro sports that have gotten much more physical over the years. The disciplined fitness regimens of the likes of Tiger Woods and Andre Agassi, for example, set the benchmarks for modern-day golf champions such as Dustin Johnson and Jason Day and tennis champions such as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
The PGA Tour’s slogan applies just as much to the America’s Cup sailors: These guys are good.
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Source: THE ORACLE BLOG