Keelhaul All The Techies?

When Dennis Conner brought Young America to the starting line for the America's Cup races on May 6, he had the might of Yankee technology on his side. The sleek boat's design had been honed by hours of computer simulations, using software and engineers from such companies as Boeing Co. and San Diego defense contractor Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). Much of the craft's winged keel was built by Ford Motor Co., and its carbon-fiber sails were high-tech wonders.

When yachting's premier event ended on May 13, however, the U.S. had suffered a humiliating defeat. In five straight races, Conner and the yacht he borrowed from rival team PACT 95 were trounced by New Zealand superboat Black Magic.

Is the loss to such a tiny nation yet another sign that America is losing its technological edge? Not really, insist Monday morning helmsmen. While Black Magic sported several innovations, the Yanks' biggest blunder may have been too much reliance on simulations and not enough on sailing. If you factor in the similarities of the two yachts and the margin of Conner's defeat, "it's obvious the reason is more than just the design," says John Marshall, head of the team that built Young America.

TEST BED. Unlike the three U.S. groups vying to defend the cup, the New Zealanders came equipped with two competitive boats. That let them assess the effects of small changes in, say, sail shape or keel design. Resulting improvements are typically too small to measure. But they can be detected when racing against a similar yacht, explains Boeing engineer Winfried Feifel, who helped design Young America. "We didn't have the benefit of racing against another boat," he says.

The Kiwis also took the time--and had the moxie--to experiment. The small wings on Back Magic's keel stick out straight instead of being swept back like those on its rivals. U.S. designers know straight winglets are faster but feared they'd get tangled with seaweed. They were proved wrong.

Another innovation was Black Magic's rig. The Kiwis moved the mast farther aft than normal and added more gizmos to alter its bend. "They did more research than anyone else on sails, doing over 200 wind-tunnel tests. We didn't have the time or the budget to do that kind of development," says Bill Trenkle of Team Dennis Conner.

"Not one of these things makes more than a 5- or 6-second difference," says professor Jerome H. Milgram of MIT, design director for America3, the mostly women U.S. team. "But if you've got six of them, it adds up."

Given more preparation time, Young America probably would have been faster. It had a new, improved keel and rudder ready. But a freak January tornado damaged the boat and set back the overall effort. Then broken gear and sailing mistakes led to a demoralizing loss at the hands of Conner's slower Stars & Stripes in the U.S. cup defender trials. After Young America was handed over to Conner's crew for the finals, there wasn't time to install the new equipment--or fine-tune the boat.

WRONG SAIL? It didn't help that veteran seadog Conner, whose crew performed flawlessly in the defender finals, was outsailed by Kiwi skipper Russell Coutts. The New Zealanders consistently read the wind shifts better, in part because of better seat-of-the-pants weather forecasting. And in the one race with stronger winds--conditions where the wider, more stable Young America had a predicted speed advantage--Conner blew it by picking the wrong mainsail, critics say. "Dennis was low on the learning curve," says Marshall bluntly. Bunk, says sail-trimmer Trenkle. "We'd actually gotten Young America going faster" than the PACT 95 crew.

Still, Marshall and others wonder if better preparation and sailing would have been enough to beat the New Zealanders. From its perfectly cut sails to its crack crew, Black Magic "had a small edge in everything," says Milgram. The American teams hope they'll be up to speed for the next America's Cup in 2000. They plan longer campaigns with more sailing time. Already, corporate backers such as SAIC and Ford have eagerly signed on. But the clear lesson: It will take more than U.S. technology to bring the prize back from Down


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