Oracle Corp. software titan Larry Ellison's decision to race the 34th America's Cup on high-speed 72-foot catamarans, which are harder to build and sail than keelboats, has been criticized for pushing the competition too far beyond traditional sailing and pricing out nonbillionaires.
But this is the America's Cup, Silicon Valley style — it's all about technology, ideas and information — and advances made in preparation for the races are already being felt in television, aerospace and sporting gear.
"The America's Cup has a long history of innovation on all kinds of levels," said Gary Jobson, the tactician on Ted Turner's 39-foot yacht Courageous when it won the Cup in 1977. "The boats have always had the leading edge of technology, whatever the technology has been."
Sailing shares with aeronautics the physics of lift and drag and high- and low-pressure airflow; picture a plane turned on its side in the water with one wing a "dagger board" protruding below the hull and the other a vertical mainsail.
This is even more true of Ellison's huge dream cats, known as AC72s. Instead of a traditional mainsail, they are powered by 135-foot-tall fixed "wings." The radical yachts commissioned by Ellison — who could define the parameters of this year's Cup boats because he won the 2010 America's Cup in Valencia, Spain — can "hydrofoil" atop the waves at speeds of more than 50 mph.
Industries increasingly share techniques for using Space Age materials adopted early on by yacht builders. Boeing has been sharing information with America's Cup boat designers and builders for years, according to America's Cup sources.
The tall AC72 wings have incorporated twistable flaps along their trailing edge that help maximize lift and keep the boat flat. Aircraft may soon borrow this idea for wing-control surfaces to replace multiple flaps, according to Tom Speers, head of wing design at Oracle Team USA and a former Boeing engineer.
There are many firsts this year aimed at widening the appeal of the Cup. The sailing is in sight of spectators on the shores of San Francisco Bay. And you can download real-time race data and apps to watch the crews in action, thanks to remote-control cameras affixed to each AC72.
When it comes to clothing, shoe and sportswear manufacturer PUMA expects its investment in gear for extreme sailing conditions to find its way into other outdoor sports.
When sailing upwind at 20-plus knots into a 20-plus-knot Bay westerly, AC72 crews are exposed to tropical-storm-force winds and a fire hose of salty spray. They are endurance athletes, wired with heart monitors and other sensors, who need waterproof breathable outerwear permitting freedom to rush back and forth across a 45-foot taut mesh trampoline between the hulls.