After truly nail-biting, heart-stopping performances by both Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand over the weekend, we checked in with Ian “Fresh” Burns, Head of Performance for Oracle Team USA, to better understand some of the obvious design differences between the boats and how those may be impacting performance.
What are you observing about your boat’s performance that is surprising you?
The boats are quite similar in most regards, so one of the unsurprising things is that they are similar in speed. What’s a pleasant surprise is that we are able to keep up with them pretty well and match their performance downwind, which is something we’ve been striving to achieve for about the last year. They [ETNZ] have been leading the way in downwind sailing and downwind jibing. It was good to get out there on the racecourse with them and be able to be on equal terms and even maybe a tiny advantage to us downwind. There’s no doubt that if you can’t get to the bottom mark first, you can’t win the race and your advantage is vastly diminished. So, we’re really happy with that. There’s room for improvement. Kyle Langford is improving every day and really fitting in well with the crew now, which will get better as he goes from one week to two weeks on the boat.
At this point there’s probably little you can do to change anything on the boat?
Not exactly, a lot of things can be changed providing they measure in. You can change appendages, wings, and all sorts of stuff if you wish to. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’ll be doing that. There have been opportunities to change things, but so far to date we haven’t seen anything that would necessarily require that. **We’ve been making changes to the way we sail the boat. **We’re coming up against the best sailing team in the world, except perhaps ours maybe, it’s going to be a good battle to see which one is going to be the best. The Kiwis have done some work up to this event and we’re working really hard to match that.
Do you have any concerns that the Kiwis have a self-tacking jib and Oracle doesn’t, especially as one place Oracle’s been weak has been in the tacks?
The self-tacking jib has its strengths and weaknesses and certainly allowing more horsepower to go into different parts of the boat that aren’t grinding the jib on, but I’ll add the free tailing jib doesn’t require a lot of pulling on. It’s a bit of a deal, but it’s not a big deal. The benefit of it is that you actually end up with a little less drag through the tack because the jib is not on tight slides on the track. You probably end up with a little more options as to how to sheet it. They’re all plus and minuses. The extra horsepower’s useful in the second race of the day when the boys have had a hard couple of races. It’s always nice to have a bit more horsepower when you need it.
Can you comment on the differences between the bows of the Oracle versus Kiwi boats and what part those differences appear to play in the racing thus far?
The hull shapes are quite different: the Kiwis have got very flat sections on the bottom of their hull, which is quite good for skimming as we call it where you’re just barely touching the water, but the Kiwis sail a lot of the time with bows out of the water so it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference what shape it is when it’s doing that. Ours is probably better for going through the water on the leeward side that’s in the water but we really have not seen a massive difference created in the hull shapes no matter what. The hulls are a little different if you look closely at them, but the differences are miniscule as far as performance. It’s the whole package—the daggerboards and the rudders are doing almost all of the work up and downwind, and the wing up in the air. If you have a long skinny hull—I don’t know what the ratio is, it’s something in the order of 20 or 25-1 width to length ratio—you find it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference if it’s a few inches wider or flatter.
The performance of the boats in Races 3 and 4: Oracle seemed to do better in the heavier air in Race 4 while ETNZ did better in the lighter air in Race 3. What are your thoughts?
There was different windspeed, but I think that the Kiwis didn’t have a great race in the afternoon and we didn’t have a great race in the earlier race. I know you’re after a design comparison, but I think it’s much about how the guys get the boat around the course. It’s incredibly demanding and challenging. **Nobody has a perfect race because it’s too hard to achieve that. **Our guys sailed differently in the afternoon compared to the morning as did the Kiwis. We’re really learning a lot from going up against them. I think the Kiwis have done a great job of optimizing the way they sail the boat as they always do. We’ve managed to catch up with them in the downwind stuff, which was one of our primary goals in the event and now we’ve got a similar improvement to make on the upwind stuff. I think our guys are really working and learning hard and trying a lot of different things and some of them are working. I think there was a huge difference between Race 3 and 4. We’ve seen big changes from the way we started the regatta to now.
If you could do something different now what would that be?
I’d move the America’s Cup back into October and give us another month. The learning curve and the improvements in these boats are coming so fast and they’re such big steps that we’ll be going infinitely faster in one month’s time and so will the Kiwis. It’s really a game of who can improve the fastest. Even though we’ve only perhaps got 6, 8, 10 races, improvements will be made every single step of the way, race to race. That’s where I think the real advantages are. I think the boats are quite similar if you look at the daggerboards and the systems and the wing—they’re really quite similar and I’m sure the Kiwis have looked at our stuff and thought the same thing and the differences in speed and performance are relatively small.
From a technical standpoint, what do you think of the racing so far?
We’ve watched these boats sail for a long time now and they never fail to inspire awe in anyone who sees them when they come by close. When we’ve been out on the support boats during training for example, they come by doing 40 knots on the foils and pass about 1 foot away from the front of our boat, everybody on the boat, whether they’ve been designing these things for the past three years or they’ve never seen it before will say they are the most beautiful sight in sailing. It’s awe inspiring, it’s kind of scary, it’s kind of wonderful all at the same time, and to see two boats at that level side by side racing where the first to blink will lose. You can go from a comfortable lead to behind in the blink of an eye. That to me is the most thrilling type of sailing to watch. Right now it feels like they’re on the edge of all times and anything could happen. Add to that, the boats are being sailed differently, the teams are different, the approach to the racing—no one really knows how to close race these boats—the guys are changing their strategies and tactics every day. To me, with a long time involvement in the America’s Cup, it’s exciting.
The other thing that really stands out to me looking out a little longer term is that we’re really a long way from being anywhere near the top of performance of these boats. For me being a technical person is a great place to be. You’re only limited by what you can practically do in the time and with the resources available. Watching it live on the water is great but the TV pictures are also absolutely breathtaking—the clarity and audio combined give you an experience that in sailing we’ve never been anywhere close to. The TV guys have done a great job of capturing these boats and especially in the environment. I’ve been sailing a long time but the America’s Cup is going to finish and people are going to say, this is amazing, what month does it come back again? It’ll be a disappointment to people who suddenly get into it and learn it’s another three years away.