Friday, September 27, 2013

America's Cup: Innovation + Technology = Thrills

Gilles Martin-Raget / America’s Cup

With the city's cultural season full speed ahead and accessible by the magical plastic device  called a Metrocard, my brainspace has been occupied by an event far away, and not even on land—the 2013 America's Cup in San Francisco.

It is quaintly called "yachting," but these fabrications can't rightly be called boats, or vessels, or machines, or anything familiar. AC72s are what they are: multi-hulled foiling thingies, raced by two teams: Oracle Team USA (owned by Larry Ellison) and Emirates Team New Zealand. 

The drama of the event was non-existent as a two-race penalty for errant tweaks put the Yanks in a hole before things even began, and got worse as the Kiwis went up 8 wins to 1. Then on a day when they could have clinched the cup, the race was called for high wind. The Americans had been improving their boat the whole time, and figured out the precise balance to be much quicker. They won the next 8 races to mark one of the stellar comebacks in sports history.

Okay, great story and all, but the biggest deal seemed to me to be the application of physics and high tech to produce vessels capable of insane speeds—50 mph or so—using wind and aero and hydrodynamics. Essentially, foiling means flying, which is what happens when the boats reach a certain speed. They lift up, like hovercraft, and freed of the drag from the water, fly. They corner on a virtual dime, at least for something with a 13-story flying wing attached to it. They also tip like the dickens, but danger is a big part of the event. (Sadly, a sailor was recently killed after his boat capsized; he was trapped under the structure.)

But the takeaway is not just fast boats, but innovation, and innovation in an ancient arena that had evolved in moderate steps until the last decade. Now, these boats are comparable to Formula One cars, and are perhaps even more impressive by utilizing the natural gifts of wind and water. Perhaps that innovation can be applied to energy production and conservation in ways previously unseen. 

And I never thought I'd look forward anxiously to the announcement of the next "deed of gift," but that day has come. Ahoy, mateys.

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