The high-tech arms race between dueling billionaires has produced breakthroughs that should spread through the boating industry
by Aaron Kuriloff
(Bloomberg) — The America's Cup boats that will race in February—products of a technological showdown between billionaire sailors—may bring wings, ultralight hulls, and computers to the next generation of sailboats. The two-year legal battle between billionaires Larry Ellison of Oracle (ORCL) and Ernesto Bertarelli, who sold his family's Swiss biotech business to Merck (MRK) for $13.3 billion in 2007, has produced two racing yachts that are a decade ahead of any boat built previously, even as the legal tussle has dogged and delayed the 158-year-old regatta, to be held off the coast of Spain. The innovations, which came about as they forced race organizers to abandon longstanding rules, may one day benefit sailors on weekend jaunts. Designers for both Ellison's BMW-Oracle Racing team and Bertarelli's Alinghi syndicate say building and learning to sail these boats, each at least 90 feet long and among the fastest yachts ever built, has meant gains in everything from data collection to sail technology. "We're like kids in the candy shop," says Dirk Kramers, chief engineer for the Cup-defending Alinghi catamaran. "During the last Cup, it was all about trying to squeeze another 1/100th of a knot out of the boat. Now we're really in discovery mode, learning huge lessons every day. We get to work on boats that are just so much more exciting than anything that's ever been done." A Decade of Advances in Two Years
Pete Melvin, a U.S. Olympic sailor and world champion, co-founded Morrelli & Melvin Design & Engineering, which has designed multihulls, including Steve Fossett's record-setting PlayStation, and has consulted for BMW-Oracle. Multihulls are much faster than monohull boats, because they are lighter and have less drag. "It's been a hugely concentrated development, with all the best people in the industry, plus outside experts in every field, all focused on pushing the edge of the envelope," he says. "It normally would have taken eight or 10 years to do what's been done in just two short years." The America's Cup has long featured yachting's cutting edge. The 1983 victor, Australia II, used wings on its keel to reduce drag and increase performance. Such wings, so secret at the time that it took two undercover frogmen to spot them, are now common on sailboats worldwide. Tsunamis of Money
Recent editions of the Cup required boats that were restrictive and boring, says Donnie Brennan, boatwright for the U.S. Olympic sailing team in Beijing and owner of Diversified Marine Services in Mobile, Ala. Two years of lawsuits over the rules of the event have led to an anything-goes face-off that "certainly opens the door to innovation and technology," he says. "They're charting new areas," Brennan says. "It's great that we've got someone like Larry Ellison out there dumping kazillions of dollars into this technology." Bertarelli spent about $90 million to capture the Cup from New Zealand in 2003. Grant Simmer, Alinghi's design team coordinator, told Seahorse magazine that the team's catamaran, named the AL-5, cost about five times as much as a typical Cup boat. Representatives of both teams have declined to discuss the details of their biggest advances, saying they wanted to hide them from each other. Alinghi said in a New York court filing that Ellison had hired spies to sneak looks at its catamaran. Wings For Sails
Mike Drummond, design chief for BMW-Oracle's USA trimaran, says he couldn't conceal the 190-foot wing that this month replaced a sail on his boat. The carbon-fiber foil is bigger than the wing of an Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger jet. The 60-foot Stars & Stripes catamaran that defended the America's Cup in 1988 used a wing about half the size. A wing is more efficient than a conventional sail, holding its shape better while generating increased lift and diminished drag. It's also harder to control. "It is an unknown risk for us," he says. "We decided the potential gains were enough that we would take that risk." Alinghi also has considered wing technology, Kramers says. Designers have worked on new kinds of line, too, to handle the excess loads and, for the first time in the America's Cup, onboard engines to power winches and other systems. Other likely spots for technological advancement include some of the most concentrated data collection in sailing history. Both teams use fiber-optic systems and on-board cameras to measure such things as sail shape and stress. Other sailors could find uses for both the data and the collection systems. Meantime, Kramers cautions against celebrating either design until the two boats meet off Valencia. "It's not a game about who comes up with the fanciest toys—you've still got to win a boat race," he says. "You can shoot yourself in the foot quite easily. You can make it too light and have something break on you, or you come up with something so complex you don't know how to sail it. So there's a certain amount of restraint involved, too." To contact the reporter on this story: Aaron Kuriloff at firstname.lastname@example.org.