Patty Zubov, January 13, 2013
“All teams are ‘flying’ their hulls now. You wouldn’t have thought that 10 years ago.”
First awarded in 1851, the America’s Cup is sailing’s top prize and the oldest trophy in international sport, predating the modern Olympic Games by 45 years. The first winner, America, which gave the trophy its name, was a 100-foot wooden schooner, a world away from the current lighter carbon fiber yachts. The BMW Oracle Racing team, largely backed by Silicon Valley billionaire and avid sailor Larry Ellison, won the last America’s Cup in Spain in 2010. Oracle Team USA also won the America’s Cup World Series fleet race last summer in San Francisco. In the World Series events, 11 teams from eight countries race identical 45-foot twin-hulled yachts, called AC45s — sort of “practice” boats for this year’s big event.
The boats being built to race for the America’s Cup trophy this September are larger 72-foot catamarans, which promise to lift their hulls in the air while only their foils — daggerboards and rudders — remain in the water, giving the illusion of flying. In early October, Oracle Team USA had finished building its sparkling new AC72, at an estimated cost of $6 million to $8 million. On the eighth day of training, the craft capsized on the San Francisco Bay, breaking the wing-sail and requiring massive repairs.
We spoke with Dirk Kramers, Design Executive for Oracle Team USA, whose experience with multi-hull sailboats dates back to the 1988 America’s Cup when he was a designer for Team Dennis Conner and the winning boat Stars & Stripes.
The LiP: What’s your approach to design engineering one of these boats?
DIRK KRAMERS: I have a background in structures, and I oversee the overall design concept of the boat and the integration of all disciplines within the design group — the structures, wings, aerodynamics and hydrodynamics systems.
One important aspect is to work with the sailors — they have criteria that need to be met, and all of us on the design team think of them as customers. They are a key part of the feedback process and development of the boat. It’s important that all feedback and information be combined into a balanced design. If one particular discipline runs away with priorities, you end up with a very “lopsided” boat — a boat that may excel in one area but could be vulnerable in others.
The LiP: Where do you get your ideas or inspiration?
DIRK KRAMERS: The process usually starts with informal discussions with team members. It then moves to pencil sketches, and to 3D CAD models to get the sizing right. From there we begin the various analysis exercises, such as the aero/hydro analyses in CFD (computational fluid dynamics). We actively look for clues and inspiration well outside sailing — auto racing, aerospace and even Mother Nature. The biggest stimulus to quick development is in the frame of competition. Competition seems to accelerate development and creativity.
An affliction that can plague all designers and engineers to some extent is the “NIH” syndrome, the “not invented here” syndrome. It’s the concept that an idea is no good unless you thought of it. If you won’t admit that a competitor has a better idea, and you don’t respond or copy it, you will be in trouble.
The LiP: Describe your creative process.
DIRK KRAMERS: I’m still very much a pencil kind of guy — I tend to scribble on bits of paper. It’s still the fastest way for me to communicate ideas to others. Keeping current with the latest CAD techniques can be challenging, so I’m fortunate to have guys around who are much better with the 3D modeling than me.
Initially the design process is dictated by rules, and that limits the boundaries. We sit down with our different groups — the sailors, the aerodynamics guys, the hydro guys, the structures guys — and kick around ideas. We incorporate ideas into what we call the “Global Model” — Model version 1, Model version 2…
The final model was 17 — 17 has been a lucky number for Larry [Ellison] for a long time. In 2010, the team’s boat was number 17, and it won. This time again, it’s 17. We stop at Model 17, then it’s 17A, B, C, D…
The LiP: In 2010, the winning boat from Oracle was a 90-foot trimaran. Since the winner gets to decide the type of sailboats for the next race, what was the thought process that led to the identical 45-foot catamarans for the World Series regattas, and the 72-foot catamarans for the final race?
DIRK KRAMERS: After winning the Cup in 2010, we determined the type of boats that we’ll be sailing would be multi-hulls with wings. It needed to be different and exciting — the pinnacle of development.
For the various teams to gain experience sailing catamarans, it was decided on a one-design class. Each team, as part of entering, gets to have an AC45 to participate in the America’s Cup World Series events. The World Series is a stepping-stone, a kick-starter to get teams experienced, and to keep racing and keep public interest going during the in-between years.
The purpose of the AC45 was to provide a nice well-handling boat, to have nice competitive racing. Speed itself was not the only driver. And the AC45s had to get completed in a very short amount of time — from the beginning of the design to the sailing of the first boat took about 3 ½ months. Sometimes, it’s almost better to do it quickly, because you don’t over-think certain parts of it.
Whereas for the AC72, every team designs and builds its own boat. You just need to make sure you’re a little bit faster than the other guy. That creates an incentive to really push things to a greater extreme. Five years ago we were going upwind at 9 knots boat speed, now we’re going upwind in excess of 20 knots!
The LiP: This America’s Cup is using LiveLine — the technology used by other big-money sports like NASCAR to identify cars on the track, and NFL to mark “1st & 10” yard lines. Is that technology helping America’s Cup become more of a spectator sport?
DIRK KRAMERS: Yes, for television production, the data off the boat is immediately visible to the viewing public. And onboard, the sailors get the info they need. There was a need to make it more exciting to sailors, but also to the public at large, to appreciate what sailing is all about — the athleticism, strategic and practical aspects, and the technology behind the sport.
The LiP: You’ve seen it all through the years, back when aluminum was considered a space-age material. How do new materials like carbon fiber affect your process?
DIRK KRAMERS: If you change materials — aluminum to carbon, for example — suddenly things are possible now that weren’t possible before. It’s a feast for us techies.
What is exciting is that something might change in one aspect of the game — be it materials or analysis techniques — and it will have a huge snowball effect on the whole concept in development of the boat. And we’re really just scratching at the surface right now.
The LiP: It seems like the work on these yachts is advancing the industry as a whole. Was it my imagination or is there more foiling with the AC72s?
DIRK KRAMERS: The boats will be foiling, for sure — all the boats will be with their hulls out of the water. Certainly going downwind, the boats will be up in the air above a certain wind speed. That’s a new thing. The rules are written to sort of discourage that kind of sailing. But we’re learning how do it now — all teams are “flying” their hulls now. You wouldn’t have thought that 10 years ago.
The LiP: What happened with the capsize of the “17”?
DIRK KRAMERS: We were doing laps on the San Francisco Bay in a very quickly building breeze. We were in the process of tuning our foils for the conditions, and during the bear-away — maneuvering from sailing upwind to sailing downwind — the bow dug in and we pitch-poled, end over end.
It happened in unusual circumstances — in the middle of October, it’s usually not that windy, and it was the peak of the highest tide of the year. There were a number of circumstances that all came together to cause this big accident. But the most fortunate thing is that nobody got hurt.
It cost us and taught us some important lessons that we’ll be sharing with our competitors in terms of safety, the most important thing.
The LiP: Team New Zealand’s AC72 has been in the water since the summer, and now Italy’s Luna Rossa is also in New Zealand testing. Sweden’s Artemis team is on the San Francisco Bay with its AC72. Do you think losing all this training time will put the Oracle team at a disadvantage?
DIRK KRAMERS: It’s a disadvantage, but the rules are we can only sail for 30 days up until February 1, 2013. We estimate the boat will be ready to sail in early February. While the capsize has been a setback, it gives us an opportunity to make some design changes that we wanted to make anyway. One thing we did is we moved winches around because we weren’t quite happy with the way the ergonomics worked out on the deck layout. There is a certain ergonomic aspect to the design — the location of the crew, how the winches get operated and how the steering gets operated. We can take some steps in that area that we otherwise might not have done.
The LiP: What still surprises you?
DIRK KRAMERS: The steepness of the learning curve is surprising. You can learn faster than you can build it. You can have a great idea and test it, but if you can’t actually implement it and apply it to the machine, it doesn’t matter.
The LiP: What does luxury mean to you?
DIRK KRAMERS: Luxury means to be able to pursue your passion rather than having to work just to put bread on the table. Luxury is to be able to work on a project like this.
The LiP: What’s your big-picture ambition with your work?
DIRK KRAMERS: We only have one ambition and that is to win the America’s Cup.
The LiP: What is the most progressive idea or concept you have come across recently that you would like to see grow?
DIRK KRAMERS: We’re working with a mode of transportation that has been around for eons, and every day we’re focused on bringing it into the mainstream.
Learn more about America’s Cup at: www.americascup.com.
Photos courtesy of Guilain Grenier, Gilles Martin-Raget, and Ron Sellers. Video courtesy of Oracle Team USA.