America’s Cup: The Resurrection of American Magic

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The oblong object, 75 feet long with a pointed nose, looks more like a downed spacecraft than a sleek racing yacht.

Hoisted in the air and surrounded by scaffolding, the object’s two appendages stick out and run down its sides like the long, slender legs of a praying mantis. But this is not a spaceship, or even an oversize insect: It is Patriot, the yacht of a team, American Magic, that hopes to reclaim the America’s Cup, sailing’s most prestigious trophy, for the United States.

And Patriot has a big problem.

On Jan. 17, while American Magic was leading a race against an Italian challenger in the Prada Cup, the series that determines who will challenge Team New Zealand for the America’s Cup in March, Patriot capsized in dramatic fashion — effectively pulling a wheelie as it rode out of the water and then rolling over on its left side.

The accident tore a hole in Patriot’s hull, sent crew members scrambling to cut teammates out of their safety harnesses and left its entire syndicate preparing to watch the multimillion-dollar boat sink into the waters of New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf.

The boat crashed down on its left side, gashing the hull. None of the 11 crew members were injured, but the damage — discovered after a chase boat scooped a piece of Patriot’s carbon hull out of the water — was substantial.

“It was a very extreme circumstance that no one can ever really be prepared for, that big a hole in the boat,” said Casey Smith, who oversees Patriot’s hydraulic system.

Flotation devices were used to keep the boat from sinking as it filled with water. Plans were discussed, revised, discarded. Nothing worked, Smith said, until a police officer “came out of nowhere” with a 40-foot-long rectangle raft that the crew wrapped around Patriot’s hull and inflated.

“That was the first time I thought, ‘OK, we’re actually going to save this thing,’” Smith said.

To understand the job that lay ahead for American Magic once it was saved, it helps to first understand the boat. The class of boats that race in the America’s Cup, AC75, is a new model that each entry was required to build and race in this year’s competition. The boats don’t just sail, they fly — provided they can reach speeds over 15 knots. Once a yacht’s hull rises out of the water, all that touches the surface are the boat’s two hydrofoils — those mechanical, praying mantis-like legs — and an equally thin rudder.

Even the terminology used around the boats has changed, to phrases more commonly associated with flying. “The pitch, nose up, nose down — they use exactly the same terminology in sailing now,” said Mark Orams, a professor of sport and recreation at the Auckland University of Technology. There is also now a crew position called a flight controller, responsible for stabilizing the boat while it is out of the water.

“You can go really, really fast,” Orams said of the new generation of racing yachts, “but you are going to be at a high risk of crashing.”

While an AC75 won’t go anywhere unless there is wind, all of its instruments and functions, like moving the hydrofoils in and out of the water, need power. Hydraulic power that moves or trims the sails comes from about eight crew members called grinders, who furiously pump hand-turned levers during the race. A lithium battery powers everything else.

That power system, along with other major controls, was destroyed by saltwater when Patriot capsized. The team had spares for all of the major components, and it harvested pieces from Defiance, the prototype for Patriot, to make some repairs. The team had to improvise with many yards of connecting cables, said Sean Healey, who worked on Patriot’s electronic rebuild.

Out on Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour, Patriot got a tow for a running start to get the boat up on its hydrofoils, standard for a low-wind practice day. Soon, the rope fell away and Patriot was flying on its own. The yacht teetered in the air on one foil, then both, and then the other as it wove through the water, hitting over 30 knots.

“She picked up right where she left off — going fast,” Hutchinson said.

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