Interview: The skipper who flies Oracle's America's Cup yacht
With about 100 days left before the America's Cup sailing competition kicks off in Bermuda, Oracle Team USA recently took its racing boat out of the warehouse and put it in the water. New Atlas was on hand at the event, which included a question and answer session with team skipper, Jimmy Spithill.
Spithill, who's also a pilot, has already led his team to claim two America's Cup trophies and was the youngest skipper to ever compete for the cup in the 2010 race.
In this edited version of the back-and-forth with the skipper, Spithill talks about the Airbus-infused tech on the boat, preparations for the race, and the importance of keeping the hydraulic system on the boat pressurized – something that is accomplished by crew members known as grinders turning hand cranks while zipping across the ocean.
How similar is sailing the yacht to actually flying?
It's real similar. When I got my pilot's license, it was in 2010 and that's when we had a big trimaran. At that stage we were making a decision of whether to build a rigid wing instead of a sail, and so we made the decision and we built this rigid wing for the trimaran and it's actually still the biggest wing ever built in the world. But I just figured: 'Look, the best way to understand a wing and aerodynamics is to get a pilot's license.' So I did that. I went down to Australia. We had a short break and it became apparent real quickly that it was very very similar to sailing – it's all about lift, drag, balance. A well-set-up plane is a lot like a well-set-up boat.
We are literally flying these boats. It's very three dimensional, so much so that the next step for me to get better is that I started my helicopter license. To sail this boat it's constant anticipation and it's constant thinking a step ahead and you're never right. Whatever is fast is very unstable in terms of our set-up, so when you try and hover a small helicopter it's so difficult. You know you are basically always trying to be a step ahead and anticipate the next movement.
What is your role as skipper and what are some of the challenges?
It's to steer the boat really. And I'm really involved with the wing trimmer. Our number one focus is essentially making sure we're going as fast as we can all the time.
In terms of the strategy and the plan around the course, Tom Slingsby, our tactician, he's the one that's really looking a step ahead. We're so locked in on the numbers and trying to keep this boat foiling and going fast and stable that it's really challenging to get your head out of the boat and away from all the displays. But that's something we also work really hard on, because the more you can look up and the more you can anticipate, then you're not reacting. If you see a gust of wind or something coming, you can make an adjustment before that and then its faster.
So that's that's the biggest challenge that I have, and then obviously there's times where there's split-second decisions you've got to take. It doesn't matter what the tactician wants to do.
In the pre-start there's a lot of close-quarters stuff. A big change for us now is the closing speeds, which are very fast. If you've got two boats doing 40 knots then the decision's got to happen quickly. So to communicate with the crew we run a communication system. We can't hear on the boat because of the apparent wind speed. Essentially if you're doing 50-60 miles per hour in 20 mile-an-hour winds you feel 70 plus mile-per-hour winds on the boat. So you just can't talk without this communication system.
This is the first time an America's Cup team has joined forces with a major airline manufacturer to develop the technology on the boat. Can you talk a little about that relationship?
Well, I think you look at where the boats have come to. A conventional sailing boat just has a lot of pulleys and ropes and they're your controls. Now it really does look like a control system on an aircraft: hydraulics, electronic actuator servers, sophisticated software, algorithms. For us, though, we've got to push very far in terms of weight; basically we can't afford for things to be heavy because it's a performance loss.
Having gone to see the Airbus headquarters I was blown away by what they call the 'iron bird' setup. This is essentially a full setup without the fuselage of every model of plane. There they can run simulations, which is what they have to do before they even think about the plane leaving the tarmac.
This allowed them to solve a lot of their development problems and issues on the shore. For us, when we go on the water that time is like gold. We can't afford stuff to break down. Now, it will every now and then, but the worst thing is to go out there and have a problem because we can't get that day back. So we set up a kind of a mini iron bird here.
How do you actually fly the boat?
You use a combination of the rudder foils and what we call the dagger boards, with the foils forward. And it's a lot like having your ailerons on a plane.
You know if the boat wasn't so violent on board, with the g-forces and the movements, we would probably run a similar system to a plane where you could push forward and aft and turn side to side. So the problem is that it can be very violent onboard and we can't be strapped in because you have got to swap sides.
So we've developed button controls to move the foils as well as a twist grip. So a lot like a pilot who pulls back to change the ailerons to make the plane go up, we can go back on the twist grip, or we can go forwards to adjust the daggerboard forward. We also have options to do that with buttons. And you're constantly doing that all the time. And that all has to come from the guys creating the horsepower because, as I said, there's no engine.
What are the technological challenges aboard an America's Cup yacht?
The hardest thing for us is our environment. We're not sitting in an air-conditioned, pressure-controlled cockpit. Saltwater hits you at 50 to 70 miles an hour, so anything electronic or metal has a very difficult time. So waterproofing is a big one.
Also, the fact that it's quite violent on board makes it difficult to adjust a joystick or a control because you don't want to overdo it. So the interface is very important. It's got to be light and developed quite quick because if you have long production times to change your hydraulic pump or cylinder, that's not going to work. I mean we've got less than 100 days. So you want to be able to develop that system the whole way up to race day.
What do you think of using head-up displays to help control the boat?
In 2010 I used one on the trimaran. The challenge is that, again, you are not sitting down the whole time. You have to run from side when there's a lot of g-force on the boat. And it's easy to lose the display and it takes up half your vision. I remember using the heads-up display on the trimaran and it took a long time for my eye to get used to it; it was mentally very tiring.
What factors influence the way you use the technology to control the boat?
We have the ability to change a lot of the stuff that's based on the conditions and not just the speed of the boat. If it's a very shifty somewhat unstable day, we may be doing big adjustments. If it's a very steady breeze and it's well mixed, then you can very much fine tune it.
But the hardest day for the crew, no question, is when it's windy and it's very gusty, because that means every single control on the boat is being used at its maximum. And nothing will work without that hydraulic oil pressure. And that's where prioritizing and knowing where they've got to cover themselves is really important, almost to the point where sometimes if it's that aggressive, we may not be able to maneuver until they top up the accumulators (pressurize the system).
Can you talk a bit about the hydraulics and the pressure in the system?
It's a lot like a fuel tank. Sometimes the guys are just constantly topping it up. You know if you get somewhat stable for a period, then they have an opportunity to essentially try to top those accumulators up. So every time you maneuver, that takes a lot of oil. You know it's not just one function, there's multiple functions in a maneuver.
How do you customize the boat for race-day conditions?
Here we have a few options. You have essentially four foils that you're allowed to have on your America's Cup boat. So the challenge is you need to have a fast set-up over a full range of wind.
Right now the race window is something like five knots of wind speed up to 25 knots of wind speed. So essentially a foil that's fast at five to 10 knots of wind speed is going to be heavily compromised (at higher speeds). You need to have essentially two pairs of foils that cover you over that range. So it's kind of like an auto racer that has his tires and then he's got his racing slicks. So it's even harder for us because we've got to cover a huge range of conditions. Add into that you have the rudders as well.
But then it really comes down to the sporting team as well. They need to go out there and race and execute it. They've got to power the boat. They've got to make the decisions. We don't have outside assistance. There are no time outs, there's no half time. They're on their own. And every time they make a decision they're at exhaustion because anything they can produce, we're going to use it because that'll make the boat go faster.
Does the team also take advantage of nutritional science to gain an edge?
Yes, it's something we have looked at, because if you had an engine increase performance of five percent, that would be a big difference.
But not only is it the amount of energy you produce, it's the decisions you make. So if you've got the right food and the right balance, not only will you be able to provide that horsepower, you'll make a better decision. And this isn't a one-day competition. So over the multiple-week competition that we're in, your diet plays into the ability to recover. So if you recover a little bit better the next day, you're going to make better decisions that day and so on.
If you can recover better than the other guy, and he's just slightly gone down, odds are you're going to make better decisions that day and you're going to have more power.
The 35th America's Cup will take place in Bermuda from June 17-18 and 24-27.