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America’s Cup: Are Traditional Sailing Skills Becoming Irrelevant?

Christian Kamp from the Artemis team (Courtesy of Sander van der Borch)

What factors will determine the outcome of the 35th America’s Cup? Where is the sport actually heading in the wake of the foiling revolution? Trimmer Christian Kamp from the Swedish sailing team Artemis Racing shares his thoughts.

 

“We start out every morning with two hours of grinding. That’s basically all we do on the boat. Everybody is grinding all the time. If you want to be good at something, you have to do exactly that. A lot of it.” Christian Kamp laughs while sitting on the porch of the Artemis base building in Hamilton, Bermuda. The morning exercises and team meeting have just ended. It’s sunny and, as we speak via Skype, the boat is being launched for the daily sail.

The six teams currently preparing to fight it out on Great Bay each employ around 100 people.

The shore team takes care of launching. In fact, 80-90 work hours go into sheer maintenance of the 50-foot Cup boat every day. That does not include sailing and boat modifications. Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without a typical of America’s Cup budget.

The six teams currently preparing to fight it out on Great Bay each employ around 100 people. Most of them have been working continuously for over three years. The result of this effort is the most advanced sailing vessels on the planet. These boats can sail 45 knots in a 15-knot breeze, and up to 30 knots upwind. The sailors are recruited from the best of the best. But now, Kamp explains, a new breed of America’s Cup sailor is becoming increasingly common.

A New Breed of America’s Cup Sailor

“I have spent 15 years perfecting my sailing skills full time, my core expertise being trim. But, that’s not the only thing that matters. In this professional sports environment, you don’t get hired solely on your skills. There’s also a lot of networking involved.

Besides, you have to function well on a big team in a very competitive environment with lots of big egos. There’s a lot of politics, a lot of waiting. It’s not for everybody. This is what you have to expect on an AC team.

Artemis racing team (Courtesy of Sander van der Borch)

Artemis racing team (Courtesy of Sander van der Borch)

“When it comes to the sailing itself, I must say that this America’s Cup is very different from the previous ones I’ve been involved in. The foiling revolution has changed so much, and not all of it for the better. Most of what we do now is deliver power to the hydraulic systems that run the foils and the wing. We’ve been reduced to grinders, and there is not a lot of trimming any more, in the traditional sense.

“We’ve been reduced to grinders, and there is not a lot of trimming any more.”

“Computers are running everything. Software is actually one of the prime parameters and will be a very decisive factor when racing starts in May. I feel like it’s a lot of waste to have all these great sailors here, more or less reduced to hamsters on a spinning wheel. But that’s the direction things are going.

The physical aspect is so important now, you actually see a new breed of guys being hired. They don’t necessarily have a great track record as sailors, but they are young and their physical strength and stamina is enormous. Of course, they also have mental skills, but you don’t necessarily need 10 or 20 years of top level sailing experience to be here. These young guys are now just as sought after as people like me—older guys with a strong technical background in sailing. It’s become very simplified, at least for four of the six guys on the boat.”

Consistently Good Maneuvers

Apart from physical strength, what does Kamp believe are the most important aspects of the 35th America’s Cup?

Trimmer Christian Kamp from Artemis (Courtesy of Sander van der Borch)

Trimmer Christian Kamp from Artemis (Courtesy of Sander van der Borch)

“I believe it’s software, board design and the functional systems on the boat. In other words, how efficiently we can control our hydraulic oil consumption. Of course, the starts will always be important in a match race.

“The physical aspect is so important now, you see a new breed of guys being hired.”

“Consistently good maneuvers will also be very decisive to avoid failed tacks or gybes. You don’t need to perform perfectly [with] fully foiling tacks and gybes every time. You can touch the water slightly with the leeward hull and be off again. But if you play with high risk—coming into the tack fully foiling and dive the nose on both hulls 70% through the maneuver—everything stops. You can lose almost 200 meters.

“A good tack, on the other hand, may cost you 10-15 meters. It’s going to be very difficult to succeed every time, sailing between limitation marks at high speed, often close to competitors. You can’t always choose when to tack or gybe, and everybody’s pulse is high.”

Software Controls Everything

Software on a sailboat? Why is that so important? “Software controls everything on the boat. You have tactical software calculating when to tack, processing wind data and so on. Software controls the functions on the boat, especially the boards. If one of the computers fails, we can’t sail. It’s simply too dangerous.

The 35th America's Cup will take place in Bermuda in May/June 2017 (Courtesy of Balazs Gardi/Oracle Team USA)

The 35th America’s Cup will take place in Bermuda in May/June 2017 (Courtesy of Balazs Gardi/Oracle Team USA)

“For example, if the software system gives the wrong input to what we call the grade—the angle of the foil—we may capsize, and people can get hurt. Downwind, we can go 40-45 knots. The margin of error is extremely narrow. Worst-case scenario: the software stops working while sailing close to another boat or in the middle of a maneuver. That’s when things can go seriously wrong.”

About the Author

Øyvind Bordal is a Norwegian writer and sailor, based in Denmark and Caribbean.

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