Britain to challenge Little America's Cup

Early plans for a C-Class campaign to bring the Cup back to the UK

Wednesday March 6th 2002, Author: James Boyd, Location: United Kingdom
Hugh Styles and Adam May - Sailboat 2002

Hugh Styles and Adam May

We've all heard of the America's Cup, but you have to be either a hardcore multihull enthusiast or over 50 to know about its rather more modest (but no less eccentric) smaller sister.

Officially called the International Catamaran Challenge Trophy, the Little America's Cup works in a similar way to the main event - it is a match race between the defender and the leading challenger, but the marked difference is in the type of boat. For the Little AC is raced in C-Class catamarans, which with the possible exception of 60ft trimarans are the fastest round the cans boats in existence. Remarkably this can be claimed by a catamaran just 25ft long by 14ft wide and with 300sqft of sail area.

The reason behind the extraordinary performance of these boats is that pretty much 'anything goes' with the rig. Over the 41 years this event has existed the boats have developed from having conventional soft sails, to rotating masts to rotating wingmasts, to wingmasts with a large cord and ultimately with an articulating solid wing. When on 23 January 1996 Steve Clarke's American challenger Cogito ended a 10 year reign in the class by Lynsey Cunningham's Yellow Pages' Edge, it was a match race between the two most efficient sailing yachts in the world.

Currently there are serious rumblings of a new British challenger, which will be something of a historic moment. Despite the first ever Little America's Cup being held at Sea Cliff in the US in 1961, Britain won the first match and brought the Trophy back to Thorpe Bay where they successfully defended it until 1969. It has since been won by Denmark, Australia and the US. The last British challenge came in 1987 from John Downie's The Hinge but which lost to the Aussies 4-0.

The gentlemen behind the new British challenger are Bristol-based structural engineer Norman Wijker, Dave Chivers, the likely project manager and renowned yachting journalist Bob Fisher, who crewed for Peter Schneidau during Britain's successful defense of the Cup in 1967 aboard Lady Helmsman. Fisher is heading the campaign and sponsor hunting.

However perhaps most interesting about this campaign is the new blood that is being drawn into it in the form of Britain's top Tornado duo Hugh Styles and Adam May, both of whom are, as luck would have it, are aeronautical engineers, gentlemen who know a wing when they see one. Both have worked for Airbus who May says are the world experts in aircraft wing design.

Initial plans are to stage the challenge in Narragansett Bay by Rhode Island sometime during 2005 , a time frame chosen to allow Styles and May to complete their Olympic campaign. But it will also give the team a good period of work-up time.

The exact make-up of the team is still far from being decided, particularly on the design and build front, but May says they have been impressed by the enthusiasm for the project. "A lot of people are excited about being involved, but it is easy to spiral out and get too many people involved."

"We're going to have to run it like a big America's Cup campaign with wind tunnel testing, CFD (computational fluid dynamics), multi-boats, etc," comments May. This will obviously cost. "Per pound it is more expensive than the new Airbus A380," comments May. But the budget will have to be reasonably flexible. "The cost of tank testing at the Woofston Unit is £3,800 per day. But do you do five days or 50 days?" asks Dave Chivers.

May is impressed by the performance of the boats. "They're the fastest course racing sailboats easily. I know from some of the race data that they can average 15 knots around the course, including tacks and gybes and tacking angles. You're looking at 30 knots downwind and 15 knots upwind, but sailing higher," he says, adding "acceleration is just on-off".

This was confirmed by Dave Hubbard, one of Cogito's designers after the last Cup. "The VMG upwind speeds for Cogito ranged from 65% of windspeed in the 12-14 knot range to 110% in the lower wind ranges. On many of the square reaches Cogito's speed was better than 2.1x true wind speed. The downwind speeds ranged from 60-90% of true wind speed." Some impressive numbers.

Chivers says that in order to play on the historic side, they are likely to base the project out of Brightlingsea (from where all the early challenges heralded) and as a result it is hard to see Reg White, who was the main helmsman for the British campaigns in the 1960s, not playing some part in this. "The creek is empty during the week," says Chivers. "You can launch and sail to your heart's content. Tuning it in the Solent would be like training a Formula One camp on the M25!"

The air of enthusiasm surrounding the team, I haven't sensed since visiting Goss Challenges during the building of Team Philips. If Bob Fisher and co can land the funding this will be fascinating project to watch over the coming months.

The world's most efficient sailing yachts...Yellow Pages up against the American challenger Cogito , the undisputed winner in 1996. Check back on madforsailing over the next few days for a complete photo gallery of the C-Class catamarans by the eminent photographer Christian Fevrier, brought to you in association with the Blue Green Photo Agency of Cowes

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