Norm Riise – Ahead of the curve

Published on November 14th, 2013

In the wake of the America’s Cup and its ancillary events, fast catamarans are enjoying the limelight like never before. But it may come as a surprise that almost half a century ago, Southern California was a hotbed of multihull innovation. With the exception of foiling, pretty much everything you saw with the 45s and 72s was happening back then. Even VPPs.

Although Velocity Prediction Programs are credited to an MIT developer in the early ‘70s, they had been in use for years before that by the fast multihull crowd in California. Norm Riise, who had designed the first American C-Class cat to win the Little America’s Cup, had developed them.

After spending the day working on the unmanned space program at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Norm Riise used that facility’s then state-of-the-art computer lab (which filled a whole room) to develop and run performance programs for fast catamarans beginning in the late ‘60s. He used those programs, and degrees in mechanical and aeronautical engineering, to design the C-Class cat (25 feet, 300 square feet of sail) Aquarius V for Alex Kozloff.

In 1976, Aquarius V with Alex and Robbie Harvey beat the Australian boat Miss Nylex to bring the Little AC home to America for the first time. Even back then, Miss Nylex sported a hard wing, while Aquarius used a more conventional fully-battened soft sail. Norm figured out that if the wind blew under 12 knots, Aquarius would be faster. If it blew over 12, Miss Nylex would prevail.

Armed with a decade’s worth of weather data for the venue – Port Philips Bay, near Melbourne – he knew that lighter winds predominated. It was a nailbiter to the end of the seven-race series, but the last day saw lighter breeze, and Aquarius sailed to a 4-3 victory over the Aussies. (Aquarius made extensive use of carbon fiber in her construction. Kozloff later built a sistership completely of carbon fiber. The cleverly-named Carbon Copy may have been the first all-carbon boat ever built.)

A bit of America’s Cup trivia includes Norm’s involvement in the 1988 America’s Cup Deed of Gift match. Prior to the first race, he was hired by Michael Fay to run the polars proving – to Fay’s disappointment – that his huge 120-ft, wing-decked monohull New Zealand would be no match for Dennis Conner’s much smaller 60-ft Stars and Stripes catamaran. Which is exactly how the mis-matched 26th America’s Cup played out.

Norm co-owned and sailed the D-Class cat Wildwind for many years (and later crewed for the new owner), both in California and at multihull events on Lake Michigan and Long Island Sound. At that latter venue, on one stormy day, the Merchant Marine Academy clocked Wildwind between two fixed points and calculated the boat hit 40 knots.

Norm always hoped he’d live to see catamarans at the America’s Cup. He just made it – he passed away in October 2013 at age 98. – John Riise

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