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Posted by on Aug 3, 2009 in Sailboat Racing, UK, US |

Catamaran vs Trimaran: America’s Cup Mismatch or Final Proof?

The lead-up to the 2010 America’s Cup has consisted of a series of exhibitions in litigation, but the 33rd Cup Match next February will regenerate the event as a yacht design competition.

Two very unusual sailboats are tuning up on opposite sides of the world. When it’s not flying a hull, one can sometimes be seen flying beneath a helicopter. And at top speed, the other doesn’t fly one hull, it flies two. But the high-performance aesthetics and thought-provoking design executions of BMW Oracle’s 90-foot trimaran and Alinghi’s 90-foot catamaran have so far been over-shadowed by the high-priced attorneys each syndicate has hired to argue its case in the New York court system.

The Alinghi 5 catamaran intended to defend the America's Cup in 2010 was launched in high style, literally, beneath a helicopter.

The Alinghi 5 catamaran intended to defend the America's Cup in 2010 was launched in high style, literally, beneath a helicopter. Carolo Borlenghi photo.

Why should the terms of a sailboat race repeatedly waste the time of an experienced judge in a court that has more important cases on its docket? Because in the case of the 33rd America’s Cup Match, money is no object, the competing parties are offended by each other’s tactics, and the terms of the match, rather than being settled by mutual consent as is the norm, are described by the Cup’s antiquated Deed of Gift.

Most people who care about the nuances of the ongoing court battle have been following it closely. I offer these links if you’ve fallen behind on your reading and would like to indulge in some excellent and sometimes humorous reporting, particularly by Cory Friedman, an attorney-sailor who’s been covering the litigation for Scuttlebutt, the American sailing news daily since September 2007. (Forty-one reports and counting; imagine if Scuttlebutt were paying him at New York City lawyer rates!)

BMW Oracle Racing's 90-foot trimaran flies two hulls during testing.

BMW Oracle Racing's 90-foot trimaran flies two hulls during testing. Gilles Martin-Raget photo

I’m more interested in the sailing that’s likely to commence in February, either in Valencia, Spain, or possibly somewhere in the Middle East. (Alinghi, the defender, is holding out on declaring the venue as long as the court allows them.) I’m fascinated to learn whether the trimaran will beat the catamaran, of vise versa. The last time we had a Deed of Gift match was in San Diego in 1988, when Dennis Conner’s hard-winged catamaran decisively beat Sir Michael Fay’s much larger monohull in the “Coma off Point Loma.” (That match ended up in court both before and after the racing.)

Typically catamarans are lighter and faster than trimarans once they lift a hull out of the water. In very light winds, tris lift their weather hull right away and generate both speed and pointing ability while cats tend to be sluggish, dragging both hulls through the water. In heavy winds and rough water, tris can also demonstrate an advantage because they have greater stability and, with two hulls in the water, often pitch less.

Alinghi 5 flies a hull in early training.

Alinghi 5 flies a hull in early training. Carlo Borlenghi photo

Of course, we don’t know the weights and stability of these two boats; it does seem likely, however, that the BMW Oracle trimaran has been built light and we’ve already seen pictures demonstrating that its crew intends to sail it with two hulls flying, almost as if it were a catamaran with only one hull in the water. On the other hand, Alinghi can adjust its craft’s power-to-weight ratio to suit the venue – it might be windy in Valencia so they wouldn’t need as big a rig there. It seems more likely to me they would choose a light-air, flat-water venue perhaps in the Middle East so they could power up their sailplan and fly a hull at all times.

Alinghi seems to hold quite a few cards in the lead-up to a venue decision, and you may have read that in the latest court decision, Alinghi won the right to carry an engine to help trim its sails. In my mind, that points toward their intention to sail in a light- to medium-wind venue with a super-powered sailplan.

On the other hand, BMW Oracle has been testing its boat for nearly a year, which may give them a much more reliable craft, and the rumor is that this is just a test vessel and they may be building a second, more optimized boat to roll out as late as the judge allows.

This match won’t prove if a cat is faster than a tri or the other way around. Some pundits suggest the racing could be extremely close. If so, that would be an extraordinary treat and we can certainly hope this will be the case. But don’t count on it. What’s more likely is that one design team will find its vessel off the pace and we’ll have another yawner, albeit at high speed. What might be worse, one team’s boat may not quite be up to spec, in which case we could see proof that when a 90-foot multihull suffers from crew error or breakdown, the results are photographically spectacular.

—John Burnham