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America’s Cup Hall of Famer answers the big questions

Almost a week into the 35th America’s Cup regatta and it’s already conjuring up the kind of melodrama, acrimony, intrigue and thrilling boat racing we’ve come to expect from the skirmish for the world’s oldest sporting trophy. Smashed-up boats, nose-dives, an umpiring clanger, and looks-that-could-kill between skippers…

With the expert knowledge of America’s Cup Hall of Famer, Mike Drummond – the former Team NZ navigator who’s had a hand in the design of Cup boats since 1985 – we’ve come up with answers to the most burning questions, as the first phase of the America’s Cup draws to a close.

Does Emirates Team New Zealand have a fast boat?

Yes, they do. Every day in this qualifier series provides a little more confusion, Drummond says, but it’s still clear Aotearoa New Zealand is fast and her speed has largely been consistent.

"There have been a couple of spots where they’ve been slow and haven’t recovered, which is puzzling. There could have been minor crew-work errors, a rookie mistake. But there’s a tiny flag up that maybe there is an issue - were they fixing or fiddling with something?”

Nevertheless, they have obvious hustle, and five wins from six races – and the first team to qualify for the semi-final play-offs - confirms that. 

Their dominance in light airs today, forcing a vexed Sir Ben Ainslie to retire before he was lapped, was the talking point of Bermuda's Dockyards. 

In the first round-robin, Team NZ emerged with "the highest bottom end speed” – in other words, while turning, the Kiwi boat loses less speed than its rivals.

Look for Team NZ to make the quickest improvement in boat speed in the coming weeks too (surviving elimination, of course). Having sailed by themselves in Auckland for so long, they’re learning the nuances of the finnicky Great Sound, and how to match-race with other catamarans – not just chase-boats.

The shifty, unpredictable breeze on the Sound has caught out a few tacticians in the past week, and could be disguising some boat speed.

“When you spot a wind shift out there, you only have a few moments to make a strategic decision,” Drummond says

“It’s like sailing on a lake. I think the water is really warm, which makes the air boil like a simmering pot.”

Will the fastest boat win the America’s Cup?

Traditionally the Cup is won by the fastest boat. But a key reason behind that has been the crew who sail it well. “Not just in racing, but in the lead-up - where if you sail it well, you can give better feedback to your designers, who can do a better job in finessing it,” says Drummond.

A fast foil needs to be coupled with a good sailor. “You can’t develop a foil that outstrips the ability of the crew. A team might have the fastest foils but through lack of power, skill or time in the boat, they can’t control them well enough.”

The qualifier series is the first time all boats have turned up in their glad rags. Until now, teams have tried different combinations of appendages, and trialled their crew. “You couldn’t rely on the results of the practice races, because no one was at full-strength,” Drummond says. “Now we know they are the best that they can be at this stage. And everyone continues to learn off each other, and improve.”

Every team has had their problems with reliability in this new class of cat. Yesterday, Oracle had a wing failure. You’d expect fewer boat faults and mistakes in manoeuvres in the coming weeks, and then the fastest boat will come to the fore.

“The fastest boat will win, because it won’t have a dummy crew on board. The fastest boat has been developed that way by a very good crew and their team.”

What will the defender achieve from racing with the challengers?

Fraternising with the enemy is no longer a sin in the America’s Cup. Controversially including the defender in the challenger fray - for the first time in 166 years - will definitely benefit Oracle.

First and foremost, they will have gleaned plenty of knowledge of the challengers, and learned much about how their own boat races, before they take a vital two weeks off to perfect “17” for the Cup proper.

But they also want the one point that’s up for grabs, which translates into the first win in the America’s Cup match. Should it be a challenger who tops the qualifier series ending on Sunday, they will have to proceed to the Cup match to make the point count.

The next few days are important for Oracle. They will want to deny Team NZ that prized point. “But it’s just as important for them to learn as much as they can, from sailing against strong opposition.”

Oracle are no mugs – and they have sharp memories of the last Cup where they never stopped developing and improving.

Why does a boat without an engine need oil?

There’s so much buzz around cyclors versus grinders, and but still some confusion about what they’re generating all that power for. Drummond puts on his designer hat to explain.

“It takes some force to move the wingsail and the foils. In the olden days, there were usually ropes that led to block and tackle [on dinghies] or winches.

“Because catamarans are wide, it’s more complex leading every control line to each side. So, it’s more convenient to use hydraulic ram for the control, and lead hoses from each side of the boat. The hoses can snake around, whereas ropes need to go through pulleys to turn corners.

“The Cup rules state that yachts are sailed with human power – no batteries or engines. So the grinders are turning a pump to pressurise the oil – the pushing fluid - that is fed to various hydraulic rams to control the mainsheet, foil up and down, foil in and out, foil rake, and rams inside the wingsail to control the angle of the flap.

“The other wrinkle in the rule allows accumulators for pressure. These are simple vessels with pressurised air, which can be used during peak power events like a tack. Recharging the accumulator is not very efficient, so each boat has to decide continually whether to directly trim at less muscle drain, or to deposit energy into the accumulator for a difficult manoeuvre later.” See? Simple.

Are the cyclors better than grinders?

It looks as though Team NZ’s cyclist-sailor crossbreeds are proving their worth. Team NZ appears to be using their power to make more manoeuvres in a short space of time, and have a better ability to adjust their foils around marks.

“One of the big advantages is that they have several extra sets of hands than their rivals. The other teams have their grinders pressing buttons with their feet, but that’s a more difficult set-up,” Drummond says.

He maintains the cyclors could give Team NZ around 10-15 percent of extra power for longer periods. With that extra power, they can create faster foils.

And, after saying they weren’t interested, Oracle now have their sole cyclor at the back of the boat. “Every America’s Cup I’ve done, pedalstals have been on the agenda,” Drummond says. “But if you’re a grinder with huge arms, you’re not going to vote for cycling, are you?”

While he’s impressed, he’s not sure yet whether the innovation will be a Cup-winning advantage.

Will we see the magical 50 knot speed barrier broken?

It’s not likely we’ll see the AC50s hit the 50-knot mark in this regatta, Drummond reckons. There’s not enough wind speed, and at around 45 knots, it’s possible the foils could cavitate. This is where the boat’s speed makes the water boil, and the water vapours don’t provide grip for the foil, reducing lift and stability.

Team NZ skipper Glenn Ashby said if his boat had super-cavitating foils they could go right past 50 knots, but they would be slow around the rest of the racetrack.

The top speed so far has been just over 43 knots, racked up by the beleaguered Brits on BAR in a rare victory, over Artemis, on Wednesday. In the 2013 Cup, Team NZ’s 72-foot cat recorded the fastest speed of 47.57 knots (in 21 knots of breeze).

But we are likely to see boats sailing an entire race without their hulls touching the water. Oracle have come closest, spending 99.4% of their second encounter with the French on their foils.

“When the Cup comes around, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see them sailing half the match at 100 percent,” Drummond says. Of course, the closer the race, the higher the chance someone will touch down.

Who would Team NZ choose as their semi-final opponent?

As it is in most match-racing regattas, the top challenger will choose their rival for the semi-finals, starting Monday. It won’t be a straightforward selection.

If Team NZ earns that luxury, they might choose the statistically weakest team, which may be BAR or France. However, if they are thinking about the best preparation for the Cup match, they could go with Dean Barker and Team Japan, who supposedly have an identical boat to Oracle.

“You could also be fairly confident that Artemis and Japan won’t put holes in your boat,” Drummond quips.    

Artemis, the pre-regatta challenger favourites, have been incredibly hot and cold. They were decisively faster upwind than Team NZ in their first encounter, but in the next day’s rematch, they were around five knots slower than they had been, in wind a few knots less than the day before.

“They have a very peaky performance - it seems when they’re in their wind range, they’re unbeatable; when they’re not, they are below average.”

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