New designs for yachts lighter, longer, faster--but still not without their kinks


The breeze, at 15 knots from the southwest, was moderate. But the damage to members of the International America's Cup class the newest, most sophisticated and expensive racing boats on the water today bordered on the incredible.

By the end of the 21-mile, nine-boat race in San Diego in May, there were several broken halyards, a snapped mast, busted steering gear, blown-out sails, shattered spinnaker poles, and a winch that took out one French sailor's teeth when it exploded.

It had been a trial run for next winter's America's Cup series, and designers and sailors were pushing the performance envelope, trimming weight for speed, a trial-and-error process that, in one day, ran up a $1 million repair bill for seven boats and frayed a few nerves.

"I think these boats are incredibly dangerous," Bill Koch, one America's Cup-class skipper and a Cape Cod resident, would say later. "I think (the boats) are kind of foolish."

Finicky might have been a better word, like an experimental fighter jet that no one quite knows how to fly. "It makes for an interesting learning curve," one sailor said after the May races.

Two yachting competitions with an ever-larger worldwide audience have prodded this step in the ever-fluid evolution of yacht design. The America's Cup, to be raced in San Diego next winter, will bring together a new generation of vessels 25 percent faster than the 12-meter boats that have dominated most Cup races the last 30 years. The BOC Challenge, a solo-crew, around-the-globe marathon named after a British sponsor, recently finished its third running; the winner trimmed two weeks from the best previous finish.

The boats have missions as different as the forces guiding their evolution, yet share several innovations. Both are capitalizing on carbon fiber composite construction material, or a sandwich of plastic honeycomb between layers of carbon fiber that furnishes the same strength for roughly half the weight of fiberglass or aluminum, the more common yacht construction materials.

Because the vessels are lighter than predecessors of similar length, the hull bottoms have become flatter, more canoe-shaped, so the boats skim down waves they once plowed through. Also, in large measure because of changes in the rules guiding design parameters, weight has been added to the base of keels, so the boats are less inclined to tip. With this added leverage, the rigs can carry more sail, the masts can be taller.

So what does it all mean to an aspiring boat owner who's not inclined to sail solo through hurricanes in the Southern Ocean or to raise the $40 million-plus needed to finance a bid for the America's Cup?

"Suddenly I've got clients walking through the door saying: 'Hey, if solo sailors can have these super-fast big boats alone, how's about a little something similar for the wife and me to sail to Antigua?'" says Chuck Paine, an accomplished naval architect from Camden, Maine.

Yacht designers, in fact, believe it is only a matter of time, a few years at most, before some of the technology begins to trickle down and become affordable to the commercial market.

Designer Rodger Martin of Newport, R.I., crafted the boat that carried Mike Plant of neighboring Jamestown to a fourth-place finish April 29 in the most recent BOC Challenge, the best performance to date by an American sailor. Thirteen skippers finished the race.

The most recent winner rounded the globe in 120 days 36 days faster than the first. Trial-and-error led to the radically flat-bottom pair of French boats that placed first and second this year, according to Martin.

The flatter the bottom, the more easily a hull will lift up and over waves, rather than drive through them. But with the speed comes skittish handling characteristics that can be treacherous for solo sailors in stormy seas.

"I was quite surprised how well the winning French boats (in the BOC) handled in huge seas," said Martin. While all the boats in the top echelon of the race were 60-feet long, the French boats were 19 feet wide; Plant's was 15 feet wide. Martin all but promises a manageable, far faster vessel for Plant in the next marathon. His strategy is locked away in proprietory computer programs.

Key to the speed of these thoroughbred boats is carbon fiber composite, borrowed from the high-performance aircraft industry. The composite commonly has a core of honeycomb plastic, perhaps two inches thick, sandwiched between thin laminated layers of carbon fiber. The fibers are strings of carbon molecules about 10 microns across (a strand of hair is about 100). The strength comes from the power bonds between the molecules.

Carbon is not only strong and light; it is also very expensive perhaps quadruple the cost of aluminum. Only the America's Cup contenders can afford to exploit the material to its fullest.

The Cup had long been governed by 12-meter racing boats, whose size, weight and sail area were limited by a mathematical equation designed to keep the playing field somewhat level.

But in 1988, New Zealand tried to exploit what appeared to be a loophole in the Cup charter. Ignoring the 12-meter tradition, New Zealand challenged with what was essentially a 133-foot-long dinghy. The United States responded with a twin-hulled, 60-foot catamaran. What competitors were really saying was that it was time to update the tired formula that had governed the race for 30 years; designers were redrafting pterodactyls when technology advances permitted tactical jets.

The 1988 Cup match was a debacle. The dinghy was no match for the catamaran and the matter eventually settled in court. But provided the momentum for a change in the formula that favors hulls and rigging of carbon fiber.

The hulls, masts, tackle even the thin strips, or battens, that now span the width of the sails to maintain the airfoil shape are now made of carbon fiber composite.

The process is highly competitive this, after all, is the event in which competitors veil their dry-docked boats in skirts to foil snoopers from the other camps. The process has also become highly complex.

A sailboat is stressed like a fully drawn bow (the hull) and arrow (the mast). To keep a 110-foot mast rigid on a 75-foot deck, stays the wires that hold the mast in place exert almost 30,000 pounds of tension where they connect to the hull, according to T.J. Perrotti, chief designer at Pedrick Yacht Designs of Newport.

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