Technology Continues To Decide Destinies In The America’s Cup

It’s a brave new world we have entered. Technology has reshaped the planet. Tradition has taken a backseat to the newest inventions and innovations, even the America’s Cup, whose sailing history can be traced to 1851. The shapes are very much different in 2017, so much so that engineers have designed boats that can still move swiftly with limited wind conditions. Some contain bodies that don’t even touch the water.

Yes, it’s a whole new monster cruising these waters, created in a lab of sorts and defining the Americas Cup of recent years and the present day. Altair stepped into this world of sailing providing engineering answers to the Artemis Racing group out of Sweden. David Durocher, one of Altair’s designers spoke about one of the company’s services, Optistruct, which are essentially men who structurally and analytically solve and provide solutions for structural design and optimization.

“This allows you to use physics to drive a design direction that’s based upon the way the bones grow in the body and use that in a lot of different capacities to get lightweight, highly engineered parts on different components from aircraft to America’s Cup boats,” Durocher said.

Durocher found himself in a unique position serving as Altair’s engineer when a customer, Artemis approached Altair. A lover of sailing from his youth he found a project that meshed perfectly on many levels. He was like a kid in a candy store. They needed a structure to improve speed and Altair enjoyed the unique challenges.

“I was giddy. I started racing at twelve years old and me and my wife competed in silver racing competitions for five years until our family grew,” Durocher said, “Combining something I actually loved and with the engineering aspect trying to solve different problems in the context of something as large as the America’s Cup was something a whole lot cooler.”

The 2017 America’s Cup has entered its final leg but one of the boats from Artemis Racing, though no longer affiliated with its designers directly still bore the fingerprints of Altair Engineering, who produced the base tools of technology that contributed to Artemis contending up to a third-place finish.

“They (Artemis) have since progressed from beyond our hands-on day-to-day involvement but the work we did, the methodology, the tools we built for them and trained them on is still our software.”

 Their impact on sailing is documented in the film “Surface To Air.” Technology, it shows, is the never-ending trend that decides the winners and stamps the weaknesses of the losers. A water blister to traditionalists but a reality that was quite clear looking off the shores of Bermuda, the site for this year’s races, which incidentally possesses the ideal conditions for boats of this type with its large spaces that reminded Durocher of an amphitheater. He went on to explain briefly how the current designs float above the waves.

“The dagger board, which is a computer model of the design, is a composite solid structure. It’s three meters tall and one meter wide, which lifts the whole boat out of the water,” Durocher said, “It’s 20% lighter than the conventional design.”

That’s the edge so many teams seek but it’s that software that has led to conflict from traditional backers who debate what is the essential ingredient to winning races, technology or seamanship. The driver or the car? The comparison can be made viewing NASCAR racing to see that without the supporting crew and the superior tools, a great driver is not enough to win with a inferior product. The cutting edge of technology is ever evolving and those who don’t keep improving risk becoming extinct.

“You will hear claims that it’s not the equipment, it’s the sailors. It’s not the sailors it’s how the winds are,” Durocher said, “It’s nothing specifically by itself. They all kind of churn together in this fruit salad of problems and ideas.

Which brings us to the topic of safety. The new boats are cutting the water to upwards of 50 knots and casualties have occurred in the sport as a result, which was pointed out in the “Surface To Air” documentary as the Artemis Team spoke about the death of one of their crew. But Durocher made the comparison to cycling, a sport which also entails riding on equipment that is vulnerable at dangerous speeds. The natural curiosity of humans to look over the edge of the cliff is the same that always finds potential dangers attractive.

“Cycling, like the Tour de France, riders go 70 to 80 mph downhill with little protection,” Durocher said, “The faster the boats are going more people are going to be interested.”

Tactics along with the technology will always go hand in hand. Artemis fell short of the mark but it’s the lessons that were learned through observation which will formulate the ideas that keep it cutting edge. The difference between the defending champion Oracle and the rest is really wire thin as demonstrated by the Emirates Team New Zealand which just went ahead of Oracle in the championship series. Their progress can be traced to their SL33 foiling catamaran test entry three years ago which started Oracle and Artemis among others to seek technical partnerships with specialties in aerospace technology in the first place.

“Trying to get to the mark first, out-thinking the other guy while going 30 to 40 knots faster, decisions are faster. Oracle, like the others are at a world-class level. It’s not clear sometimes what’s the difference. It comes down a lot to tacticians who make the decisions and unforced errors,” Durocher said, “Unless your pushing every day on improvements and repairs and doing them right until their good, you’re not going to compete. You’re going to fall far behind.”

Technology rules the roost but does everyone agree that the changes are fair for all? Will this create a glass ceiling on technology used in the America’s Cup? That has been an eternal issue for this race series. In this competition alone the Luna Rossa team withdrew due to concerns over the America’s Cup class design while Team Australia left over cost concerns.

“The only way there will be a technical ceiling is if they limit the rules to the point where you have to use this type of material, or build this certain way. One design on the low end then there are ceilings,“ Durocher said, “But by allowing a significant amount of design freedom then what can be done is unlimited.”

Altair is not done here. They saw what contributed to Artemis loss to Emirates Team New Zealand. They are buoyed by the results of their hardware with only three months of work and they noted much from these races and have an eye to the future. It includes more work on the water.

“I see in the future our company getting more involved and probably more investments and partnering with teams like Artemis and sporting competitions,” Durocher said, “There is a lot for us to learn as a company. We’re engineers so we always naturally inclined to seek out a difficult problem and learn from it. It snowballs and makes our technology and software teams better.”

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