Team Invictus' Norman Wijker on the Little America's Cup

Team Invictus' Norman Wijker on the Little America's Cup

Thursday October 14 2010 Author: invictus Location: United Kingdom

It is less than two months since we returned from the 2010 Little America's Cup in Rhode Island (hosted by New York Yacht Club) where we finished in what we considered to be a creditable third position. This showed that we have not quite joined the premier league (either in terms of boat or crew performance) but we are certainly knocking on that door, and we fully expect to be there next time these boats gather for this very special and unique event (we have to because we are hosting it here in the UK!!!)

For us, the event has a special atmosphere, a Corinthian spirit which exists despite the large sums of money invested by each team, a point that was clear to newcomers at this year’s event. That spirit of the amateur is what characterises the LAC, it’s why a group of people who had never designed a boat before could come and play with those who make it their profession; it is a mixing pot of different backgrounds, experiences, personalities that has been with the class since its start. It is unlikely ever to see a lawyer employed to solve disputes and has remained (so far) untouched by overt commercialism, an unusual situation for such a 'prestige' event. We do not have to demonstrate 'close racing' (and rig the designs accordingly) just to boost audiences that pay for the sponsor's attention, but we do need events like the one this year in order to bring people to come and play, just for the sake of it!

Whether the class can continue like this remains to be seen/ Fred Eaton poured mostly his own money into his four boats of 2007-2010; he could have sought sponsorship but preferred to keep things 'pure' and steer clear of the 'sponsor monster'. Without Fred’s investment, we might not be here today and Steve Clark was responsible for ensuring there was a trophy still to race for after the original trophy trustees abandoned C class (in favour of one-design). Steve put his own blood, sweat tears (and money) into his new boat (Aethon), and again opted to stay clear of commercial influence. At Team Invictus, we were lucky in that our main financial backers have been interested in more than just column-inches in the media and press.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this year's event feeling special for all those who were there were the numerous links between the unofficial name 'Little Americas Cup' and its larger, more famous namesake:

1. Our host club (NYYC) has the longest standing link with America's Cup, having held it for the longest period of any sporting trophy

2. We had seen the recent victory of BMW Oracle Racing in February in a boat that drew inspiration and design expertise for its wingsail from the C class catamarans

3. And finally; at this year's LAC, BMW Oracle's helmsman (James Spithill) along with seven time A-Class World Champion and fellow Aussie Glenn Ashby raced the 2007 winning boat Alpha (and gave it a sail number that looked from many angles to read AUSII – perhaps a nod to Australia II, the first boat to take the AC trophy away from NYYC in 1983)

If you are a sailor, you will have had to have been on a different planet not to know that AC has gone down the route of wing-sailed cats for AC34. This has not been to everyone’s taste; TeamOrigin recently seeming to say that they could not put together a team capable of winning, despite this being the most level playing field ever (and every event that you opt out of, puts you further behind).

There has been speculation about whether this would create a flood of massively funded teams all wanting to build C class cats as a development class for the AC72; time will tell if this will be the case, but there is one key difference (apart from size) between a C class catamaran and an AC72; sail area! An AC72 will allow downwind sails as well as the wingsail (mainly for upwind sailing). What is more, the design of the boat and the wing is much more constrained than it is in C class, where the box rule dictates only length, width and sail area.

The C class cats could have downwind sails as well, as long as the total area does not exceed the 300sq ft allowed, but that clearly makes no sense at all. So the C class wings have had to become very sophisticated and this is totally in line with what the class has always stood for: it is a development class and its objective is to keep building the fastest boats possible within that very simple framework.

Last August, Fred Eaton's boat Canaan showed new thinking in the wing design, taking area from low down to higher up, and also making the rig taller again than Alpha (which was taller than Cogito) as well as a host of more detailed refinements. To a designer, this kind of freedom is what facilitates learning and understanding and builds the intellectual challenge; a challenge which AC72 has subdued in the chase for close match racing to generate audiences (but were any of these guys watching the 2010 Little AC?)

Although it was not ready in time, Steve Clark's Aethon wing was also a new direction in thinking. Though we still have to see how effective it is, we did get to see Steve’s thinking in terms of platform design which perpetuated the debate on curved and canting foils, even if briefly, and she certainly looks quick.

The Little AC, having re-invented itself in 2004 seems to be going from strength to strength, perhaps buoyed by this AC interest, but mostly because of the efforts of the small community that keep it alive. There were at one point seven boats on the line-up, but actually there were only three teams who had designed and built the boats. We are therefore a fragile community, and though noises have been made in a number of quarters, we are still unsure as to whether we will see any more at the next event in the UK.

The history of the event shows that there have only been three nationalities that have had any lasting success, the British won through the 60s, the US dominated in the 70s and Australia stole the 80s before Cogito (US) won it back in 1996. (The Canadians, having won in 07 and 10 should be added to this list as nations to have won it more than once, but they are still short of a decade of dominance).
Invictus’s Challenge this year, was the first real UK challenge since the end of the 60s (John Downey's 1987 challenge and our 2004 challenge were enthusiastic forays, but were not ultimately in the right ballpark to be considered realistic challengers)

For whoever is going to be lifting that glass trophy in 2013, the race starts NOW. Winning is not just the job of the speed jockeys who race these craft on the water, it is not just the brainpower of the engineers or the skill of the builders who create the wonderful machines, it is the whole package. It’s an arms race!. Many have said that Fred Eatons investment of millions is unfair, however, we echo Steve Clark's belief that; yes, this IS an arms race, and that means if someone is outgunning you, go and find some bigger guns and stop whining about it.

That will inevitably push some teams down the commercial sponsorship route and we don’t know how that will change things, but maybe it is possible to have your cake and eat it! One thing seems sure, beating Steve and Fred will not be easy, and if it was, it wouldn’t be worth doing, so we have to get serious and at the same time, mind that we don’t destroy what we have come to love in the process.

So that will be our strategy leading to the next races, we need to 'up' our game; we cannot do this alone, so we are looking for the sailing community in the UK to support our challenge, it’s time for a British revival! We are hoping to take Invictus to the London Boat Show in January, so come along and 'support your local gunfighter'.

More on Invictus Challenge here

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