Polymer-matrix composites pervade the AC45 wing-sailed catamarans competing in Portugal next month for the kickoff event of the 34th America's Cup.
The single-design America's Cup 45 fleet, manufactured by Core Builders Composites Ltd. in Warkworth, New Zealand, is a group effort using resin, structural cores and carbon-and-aramid-fiber tapes and fabrics from suppliers such as Advanced Composites Group, Euro-Composites Group, Gurit Holding AG and Adhesive Technologies Ltd.
Boat and wing builders Tim Smyth and Mark Turner oversee Core's 70-person operation in a 55,000-square-foot production plant north of Auckland, and U.S. software magnate and billionaire Larry Ellison owns the outfit through his Oracle Racing Inc. sailboat racing syndicate — Oracle won the 33rd America's Cup regatta off the coast of Valencia, Spain, in February 2010.
Then under the name BMW Oracle Racing, the team sailed a massive trimaran built by Core Builders in Anacortes, Wash., defeating the catamaran of Ernesto Bertarelli-led Swiss defender Alinghi. (BMW ended its partnership with Oracle in December.)
The America's Cup winner sets the rules and venue for the next cycle of races, and Ellison's Oracle opted for a change that is creating a new era in AC technology.
To that end, monohull-oriented sailors are getting acquainted with a new class of cutting-edge, high-speed multihulls as they prepare to race, beginning in July of next year, in team-built 72-foot-long wing-sail catamarans. The AC72 yachts, still a design in progress, will be launched July 1, 2012, and will be the boats used in the 34th America's Cup match in San Francisco in 2013.
Meanwhile, competitors in AC45 World Series races leading up to the final matches will be using the smaller, 45-foot multihull wing-sail catamarans built by Core in Warkworth. The AC45 kickoff begins Aug. 6-14 in Portugal, off the coastal town of Cascais, near Lisbon.
Core raced to complete the entire fleet of new multihull AC45s for the World Series, compressing design and construction into one simultaneous process, according to Core Builders' Smyth. In August Oracle launched design work that continued into the manufacturing phase, which followed in September.
As of June 15, Core had produced 10 AC45s, and “11 and 12 are in production now,” Smyth said via Skype.
These new yachts don't come cheap: Initially priced at 650,000 euros ($921,000), the AC45 is now about 695,000 euros ($984,000).
“There was so much wing-handling equipment, and the delivery schedule was onerous,” Smyth said.
All of the AC45 components are made with pre-impregnated epoxy materials — mostly from Heanor, England-based ACG — and vacuum bagged for curing. Echternach, Luxembourg-based Euro-Composites makes the yacht's honeycomb core using phenolic-coated Nomex meta-aramid fibers and a non-metallic lightweight structural material. Wattzil, Switzerland-based Gurit supplied wing-spar materials including its M-grade Corecell foam, known as M-foam.
For the bulkheads, Core vacuum-cures Nomex and M-foam cores and carbon-fiber/epoxy prepreg and applies a modified epoxy urethane undercoating.
An AC45, minus a removable structure, fits in a 40-foot-long cargo container for shipping, Smyth said.
The overall multihull construction takes weight out and puts speed in: With a wing sail of about 130 feet, the AC72 will be capable of doing 30 knots.
“The industry has evolved and advanced,” Smyth said. “Designers specifying these materials are more aware of properties. There was a fudge factor in the old days. Now designs are down to theoretical limits although not as much as aerospace.”
From design to material delivery, the AC45 development was “the fastest I have experienced over 17 years in project management of material supply” to America's Cup structures, said Dean Pannett, principal director of Red Beach, New Zealand-based NZ Composites Ltd., a Euro-Composites distributor. NZ worked closely with project management teams to deliver the first Euro-Composites structural materials in only about four weeks, he said.
Oracle Racing, as both “client and producer,” facilitated the fast learning curve, Smyth said. “We had the facility, we had installed our equipment and we were able to call on people we had employed in the past.”
In a U.S. demonstration June 13, an AC45 catamaran capsized in San Francisco Bay when four-time America's Cup champion Russell Coutts — who is also Oracle's CEO — lost control and cart-wheeled the boat during a practice race. “The boat was repaired that night with some sheeting,” Smyth said.
Defender Oracle Racing has established two San Francisco-based organizations to oversee events and enforce new AC45 and AC72 rules: America's Cup Race Management for on-water races, and America's Cup Event Authority for off-water activities.
The 34th America's Cup challenger selection and match finals will take place from July 4 to Sept 22, 2013, in San Francisco.
Defender Oracle will face challenger-of-record Artemis Racing, representing the Royal Swedish Yacht Club of Saltsj"baden. Also represented are yacht clubs in France, New Zealand, China, North Korea, Spain and Italy.