Keeping Secrets

What’s with the business of keeping our America’s Cup and Volvo boats under wraps until game time? It’s all about the head games, and as silly as they are, I can’t stop playing. _Gaining Bearing _from our September 2011 issue.

August 24, 2011
Sailing World

PUMA Ocean Racing- The Secret’s Inside

Dan Armstrong/PUMA Ocean Racing

I graduated from Boston University and moved to Newport, R.I., in the summer of 1983, the same summer Australia II took away the America’s Cup and forever changed Newport. We learned then that the Australians were very good at playing the game of keeping secrets. Every time Australia II came out of the water, the team would drape a “skirt” around the underbody, which kept the shape and style of the keel a mystery to prying and curious eyes.

It’s widely known that there was a whole lot of espionage happening along the waterfront that summer. The most intriguing boat by far was Australia II. It didn’t look like the rest of the 12 Meters in town and, on the water, it sure was smoking the competition. There were even rumors that the Australians were sandbagging their races in order to keep the challenger trials close, just so the Americans wouldn’t push to get to the bottom of what was behind the curtain. It was the talk of the town, and the Australians had the mental edge before they ever even started the Cup trials.

The day the Aussies won the Cup, I “borrowed” a dinghy with three friends, rowed under a few piers, and all of a sudden we found ourselves holding on to the side of Australia II as the victory celebration began to boil. It was an unforgettable experience seeing Alan Bond standing on the aft deck of the team’s tender, raising his arms to the sky as the rowdy crowd chanted, “Show us the keel!”


And up she came, the unconventional keel finally in full view: the reverse sweep, the wings, and the camouflage blue paint scheme used to create the illusion of a regular keel. It was an absolutely surreal moment.

And so began a trend. “Skirts” and secrecy became commonplace with the America’s Cup. Everybody did it. Why? Because in each program’s opinion they were hiding something their competition didn’t have. The skirt validates the notion that “we are smarter than the other guys, and, for sure, if someone saw what was behind the veil, then everybody would copy it.”

But that’s some crazy logic, and with the America’s Cup and the Volvo, we’re all guilty of it: all this secrecy is pointless, yet we continue to perpetuate it.


While Australia II did have something legitimate to hide, there was no way anyone could ever get enough of a look to study it carefully. Even if divers could take underwater photos as the boat passed Castle Hill every day, the photos alone would never be enough for any of the challengers to make huge modifications. The skirt had validation.

From then on, though, I’d make a case that all the effort that goes into keeping secrets is ridiculous.

At the following Cup in Freemantle, the majority—if not all—of the 12 Meters had skirts. I could argue that some of the syndicates would have been better off without skirts on their boats—on the basis that others might have copied and ended up being slower.


The reality, however, is that all of these major programs have so much time and money invested in smart people and concepts that, even if they saw what others were doing, 99 percent of the time, they’d rationalize that what the competition was doing was wrong anyway.

Then came the America’s Cup Class Rule, and sure enough, here come the skirts, heavily guarded compounds, and absolute secrecy. Every time the shrouds came down after a syndicate was eliminated, or if the regatta rules mandated public unveilings, sure enough . . . there’s . . . hold your breath . . . a bulb on a keel with small wings on it!



And—gasp—there’s a rudder!

What a load of crap. The reality is the hull shape, rig package, and engineering influence performance far more than any foil veiled behind a skirt. What the skirts don’t hide is usually far more revolutionary. Take, for example, Young America’s wing mast in the 2000 Cup.

With the Volvo Ocean Race, secrecy is a big, deal, too. ABN AMRO, which won the 2005-’06 race, was about 5 feet wider than its competition. It was the first with dual rudders, and it was obvious it had a much larger bulb. There was no sense hiding those features, but photography of the interior was never allowed, and that tradition continues.

In the 2008-’09 race, we didn’t allow people to take photos down below, either, primarily because we didn’t want to give away the engineering of our daggerboard cases. But eventually we learned that we’d over engineered them about two times, and we might have done ourselves a service early on to expose this flaw. Maybe someone could have pointed out our mistake. What we considered an advantage ended up being a disadvantage, and, in hindsight, by keeping it secret we really only hurt our own cause.

But with PUMA Ocean Racing Team’s mar mostro, we’ve decided to do the same thing.

“No pics below, please.”

Are there a lot of innovative ideas inside our boat? Of course there are. The engineering we’ve come up with is amazing, but it’s too late for any of the other teams to change their engineering, anyway. So I ask myself, “OK then, who cares?” We have stacking bays, a toilet made of carbon fiber, and bunks—you guessed it, bunks! I wonder what the other teams would give to see our bunks? Are we really creating an advantage by giving the impression that our boat is really all that different? Are others really buying this?

It doesn’t matter. We shroud what we can, because we can, and in our case, it’s the interior. Maybe it’s because it creates an aura over the program that sends out the super cool vibe that we are always trying to create. I don’t know. I’m starting to think that video cameras should document what’s inside all the race boats, make it public, and be done with it. It would certainly create more buzz to show what innovative ideas each of the teams have come up with.

The next secrecy games will be with the 72-foot catamarans for the 34th America’s Cup. Programs are spending vast sums of money on the design and engineering of these rockets, and teams will face the age-old quandary: splash the boat early and train hard on it, thereby laying one’s cards down on the table for all to see, or wait as long as possible, keeping one’s hand close to the vest, with the risk of launching a lemon and not having any time to make it into lemonade.

I’m sure the wing technology will be a radical departure over what we’ve seen. Maybe teams will place a sock over their wing to hide it from the competition. I’m sure the wave-piercing hulls will be very different from what we’ve seen thus far. Will someone make a shroud that looks like two pant legs connected by a waist to cover the hulls? No more skirts: we’re talking pants and socks—I can see it now.

I’ve had different experiences in the American’s Cup and Volvo, and for some reason I sit here and contemplate the idea of secrecy. Thinking that another team is going to steal our ideas is crazy. But at the same time, I’m promoting secrecy with our new boat.

I honestly don’t know why. Skirts, pants, socks—maybe it’s all for show, to give the impression that we’re cooler than the other guys, and we have a trick or two up our sleeve. But thank goodness the race eventually starts, exposing all our secrets. I’m sure the carbon toilet on mar mostro is going to be the reason we win or lose the Volvo Ocean Race. I maintain that Australia II is the one boat that made secrecy work, and this is why we’ve been wasting so much time and energy playing hide-and-seek ever since.


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