Technological Trickle-down

Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper

The America’s Cup is and has always has been a race of technology. From the very beginning, competitors racing for the trophy that was renamed for the black schooner which so thoroughly trounced the competition that the Queen’s attendant was obliged to utter those immortal words, “Your majesty, there is no second” (a phrase that still gives me goose bumps) used superior technology to win. From America’s hull shape and sails to Bondy’s (well, Bob Miller’s) wing keel on Australia II, the boffins have had a hand in the outcome of the racing to a degree unmatched in other sailing events.


This unique phenomenon has on occasion prompted sailing commentators to remark on the “trickle-down” of technology from the lofty peaks of the Astro-Surf to mere mortals sailing around the bay. They’ve commented on how America’s Cup technology has made sailing, better, faster, easier, safer and (fill in the blanks) for the average sailor.

Well, I’m not sure this is really the case. Regular readers know of my interest in short-handed sailing, and I reckon that many more ideas useful to that mythical being, The Average Sailor, have come from short-handed sailing, particularly solo racing.

For instance, I have never heard of any America’s Cup boat having water ballast, yet the earliest incidence I’ve found of a “racing boat” using water ballast was the late Eric Tabarly. He used water ballast to great effect in winning – by 11 days – the 1969 San Francisco-Tokyo Transpacific Race. This was a single-handed race. I know of at least a dozen purpose-built or modified cruising boats with water ballast designed into them or retrofitted. OK, a dozen is not as momentous as an entire “Occupy Water Ballast” movement, but on two of those boats, including one I was the Master on, the water tanks functioned as the fresh water tanks. This clever detail provided fresh water capacity several times greater than what might have been stored in the normal way. The owner of another boat that used seawater for the ballast told me that it was like a first reef: “If it’s getting breezy, I simply put some water in the tank (from under the shelter of the dodger) rather than clamber around putting a reef in.”

Asymmetrical spinnakers and bowsprits have been a great addition to the cruising boat. These two things make downwind sailing all of things that the AC technology purports to offer. With the possible exception of some of the late 1880s America’s Cup yachts, A-sails were not seen on race boats until the early 1990s. That is, except for certain classes of Southern Hemisphere dinghies like the Sydney Harbour 16-foot skiffs (cousins of the “eydeens” rather than siblings) that have had asymmetrical kites forever. And Hood Sailmakers was making A-sails for cruising boats in the early ’80s.

Carbon fiber masts were not used in the America’s Cup until after the 12 Metre era (although Australia II did have a carbon boom), yet carbon rigs were a common fixture on Mini Transat Class boats in the early ‘80s.

And what of that most essential piece of kit for cruising boats, without which the size of the typical cruising boat – and the number of such boats – might well a lot smaller? Autopilots – both electric and mechanical – have opened up the world’s oceans to generations of sailors traveling alone or with small crews.

Colonel Blondie Hasler, the founder of the Observer SingleHanded Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR), was neither the first user nor the inventor of the wind vane, but his participation in the first OSTAR certainly brought the vane to the attention of sailors. Eric Hiscock, Ann Davison, Commander Bill King and Sir Robin KnoxJohnson and hundreds, probably thousands, of others all employed mechanical wind vanes. The only autopilot I’ve seen within 50 feet of an America’s Cup boat was on the Grand Banks 42 we used as Australia’s tender in 1980.

Composite construction? That was well along in the 1970s and ‘80s, while the 12s were still being made of aluminum.

Winches? I have not seen a carbon grinder pedestal on a cruising boat.

Keels? Well, there was a bit of a rush on wing keels after Australia II, but that seems to have died off and been replaced by bulbs.

Sail handling? Solent stays come from the French solo scene. Roller furling? Enough said.

Weather routing, low-friction luff track systems and durable sails whose lives are measured in years or miles – not hours – have all come from the single-handed community.

High performance cordage? Maybe, but Spectra halyards here and there is hardly a flood of benefits for the average sailor, most of whom continue to use polyester cordage.

The current crop of spectacular technology being employed by those involved in Larry’s Great Adventure is fantastic, but I’m not holding my breath for wing masts, foils and crash helmets to start bobbing up on Catalinas at boat shows. To see innovations from race boats that are of real use to The Average Sailor, my binos will be firmly fixed on the single-handed world.

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