Can Sailing Be the Next F1?

Published on August 10th, 2014

Terry Hutchinson is a sailing legend. The 46-year-old America’s Cup vet has been at the tiller since he was a kid and on the circuit since he was 13. But the former helmsman turned Executive Vice President at Quantum Sail Design Group is currently landlocked. He will not compete for Oracle Team USA in 2017 or for his previous team, Artemis Racing, which represents Sweden. The reason is simple: Hutchinson doesn’t think the boats are safe. He said as much during the last Cup campaign and lost his job over it.

The next-generation boats Larry Ellison introduced to last year’s competition, which use rigid wing mainsails and foil keel that allows the boat to stay above the water, are – to dispense with the nautical terminology – fast as hell. USA 17, which won the America’s Cup, can sail at two and a half times wind speed and easily hit 40 mph. That’s good news for anyone who likes to watch boats, but worrisome to the men who make a living racing them.

These sailboats don’t sink; they crash. Though racing is more exciting for the technological changes (America’s come-from-behind win in San Francisco was nothing if not engaging) but Hutchinson isn’t sure the sport is better off for appealing to a broader crowd. He’s not tech-averse by any means, but he’s a captain: He worries about sailors. He worries about sailors not coming home.

Hutchinson talked to about the future of sailing and the America’s Cup. Here’s an excerpt.

You were supposed to compete on Artemis, which was representing Sweden at the 2013 America’s Cup. Then you were terminated. What happened?

I had a massive falling out with the owner of the team and the CEO about the safety of our yacht so they decided to terminate me. Ten weeks after my argument with the owner about the safety of the Artemis boat, the boat capsized in the San Francisco bay and one of the sailors was killed. It was a known thing that the boat was not safe. It was a tragedy. The guy that was killed was a good person and a father.

So you’re not exactly an advocate for the new style of foil-assisted sailing that was showcased during this last Cup and will, according to rules released earlier this summer, be the centerpiece of the 2017 competition. Do you think it’s getting safer?

Basically what they’ve done is reduce the size of the wings and the size of the boats, but they’ve allowed some more foiling control options for a higher performance. They’re going to be on-edge for sure because they’re smaller; there’s less drag to the wind. Think about a car when you’re driving down the road at 60 mph and you stick your hand out the window, in essence, that will slow the car down. If you have a smaller car that’s capable of the same type of speed, but doesn’t have the arm sticking out the window, that car is inherently going to go faster. The boats will go faster, and they’ll be more dangerous and on-edge.

My personal opinion is that people leading the event aren’t applying any logic or reason. They’re just trying to make something that is perceived to be cool and have zero forethought into the actual consequences of what they’re proposing.

When you were taking part in the races, were people trying to discourage you from participating because of the possible danger?

Yeah, but it’s a fascinating game. The 2007 America’s Cup was about as equal of a sailing competition as you can possibly have. And you know, we on team New Zealand lost 5-2 to Alinghi and they had a better boat. The 2013 America’s Cup was a lopsided event until Oracle got their act together and it wasn’t the sailors who got their act together, it was the designers and the people behind the scenes that figured out a couple things to do. They changed the element of drag to their boat and all of a sudden the boat was faster. They changed the balance of the wing and they were able to get more performance out of their boat sailing into the wind. In essence, there was nothing team New Zealand could do to stop them.

Too read complete interview:

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