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The Future of Sailing: How Aeronautics Is Transforming America's Cup

We went to Bermuda for a closer look at Team USA's 45-foot catamaran and its revolutionary Airbus technology.

The America's Cup competition

On the winding road that leads to the western edge of Bermuda, it seems that each twist reveals either a series of pastel houses with immaculate pyramidal roofs or a small bay with azure water and alternating well-trimmed palms and native cedar trees. After a few more turns, the entrance to the Royal Naval Dockyard appears in the distance, flanked by two enormous, crumbling white limestone pillars. They are wrapped, like presents, in posters for the America’s Cup. In a different context, this guarded port would look austere. Decorated as it is, though, the entrance is giving off a party vibe, rather than that of an essential site in the British Empire’s maritime history.

Predating the modern Olympics by 45 years, the America’s Cup has been held since 1851, making it one of the oldest sporting competitions in the world. Its trophy, a one-metre-high sparkling silver ewer, is the most prestigious in yachting. (Like the Stanley Cup – and unlike the prime minister of Bermuda – it has its own bodyguard.)

In addition to housing museums, historic buildings and shops, the Royal Naval Dockyard is the race’s nerve centre and serves as base camp for the teams. A few metres from the entrance, three men on scaffolding are installing an S taller than they are to complete an Airbus logo that spreads across the grey sheet metal of the American hangar. I’m on tenterhooks: Concealed inside is the USA 17, essentially a hybrid of the Batmobile and an F18, and this hydrofoil catamaran belongs to the title holders, Oracle Team USA. Created in partnership with Airbus and 65 designers and builders (it takes a village, after all), the boat perfectly embodies the relentless race for advanced naval architectural technology that is the America’s Cup.

Sailing competition

Even with the number of yachts being tossed about on the waves around this island, you could still forget that sailing is not only at the top of the Bermudan Maslow’s pyramid, but also at its foundation. During a postprandial stroll along the paved streets of the port, I notice a beautiful 118-foot schooner with a wooden hull. It’s the Spirit of Bermuda, a reproduction of a three-masted Bermuda sloop. Her triangular sail rigging is based on techniques developed here in the 17th and 18th centuries to facilitate smooth sailing upwind – boats like these are adapted to the gusts typical to the region and to the many reefs that make turns difficult. Happy shouts muffled by blasts of wind snap me out of my contemplation: Students from a sailing school have just capsized their Optimist, a small gaff-rigged boat, and its neon-pink sail undulates lazily on the water. They set their craft afloat again, laughing easily like kids climbing back on their bikes after a fall.

At a nearby dock, the door of the Oracle Team USA hangar is folded up like an accordion. The team is getting ready to put its gleaming 45-foot catamaran in the water, under the watchful eyes – and zoom lenses – of the opposing teams, who cruise around in zodiacs. (Team Sweden Artemis Racing, I see you!) It might sound farfetched to say that the ultimate goal of a boat is to take flight, but by using Airbus technology, the American team is ensuring its boat will touch water as little as possible, even when tacking. With the help of a crane, the team of sailors – tanned and toned, they’re all more Top Gun than Love Boat – pulls on rigging holding the wingsail, almost identical to an A320 wing. Black, shiny and proudly bearing an American flag at its peak, the sail rises majestically in irons, its floating telltales perfectly aligned. It is posed on a gleaming red and black catamaran whose hulls are fitted with foils – small wings themselves equipped with winglets, like those found on aircraft. This is the height of aeronautics, so much so that it’s hard to say where aircraft technology ends and sailing technology begins.

My eyes shift from the boat, now kissing the surface of the water, to the horizon. The distant shore forms a long crescent, set off by an array of colourful houses that could almost be a palette of Pantone colours. The Great Sound suddenly looks like a giant amphitheatre, and I envy the locals who’ll be able to sit back, Dark ’n’ Stormy in hand, and watch the race from their backyards. Soon, the fastest vessels in the world will be cutting through the waters of the sound at speeds of more than 100 kilometres per hour. The future of sailing will be decided here. And as if history wanted the last word, the Spirit of Bermuda appears in my field of vision, its three triangular sails swollen by a westerly wind. It’s in the air: This is where the great forces in sailing cross paths.

The America’s Cup

May 26–June 27

Where to Stay

Hamilton Princess & Beach Club

The Hamilton Princess & Beach Club, the official hotel of the America’s Cup, was renovated in 2015 and now features an impressive collection of contemporary artwork (think Banksy, Ai Weiwei and Invader) and a 60-slip marina. In May and June, fitness sessions inspired by the Cup’s athletes’ regimens, with sprints, swimming and boxing, will have you racing for the finish line.



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