Winging It: How Larry Ellison Harnessed Big Data To Win The America's Cup

Posted: Dec 23 2013, 11:36am CST | by , in News


Winging It: How Larry Ellison Harnessed Big Data To Win The America's Cup
Photo Credit: Forbes

On Aug. 29, 2012, a strange sight emerged on the choppy waters of Hauraki Gulf off Auckland, New Zealand. A black-hulled, 72-foot catamaran topped by a 131-foot wing sail sped across the gulf, first lifting its windward hull and then the leeward one, until the entire 15,000-pound boat was levitating above the waves, accelerating past 30 knots and pushing yacht racing into an entirely new realm.

A photograph appeared on the Internet almost immediately, and a few days later the sailing world had confirmation: Emirates Team New Zealand had figured out how to make its America’s Cup contender foil. The progression from single-hulled yachts to exotic, carbon-fiber multihulls that Oracle Chief Larry Ellison had initiated through litigation in the 33rd America’s Cup had escalated to an all-out arms race as boats that were initially designed only to be fast and exciting became faster, more exciting and now potentially life-threatening.

The design and tactical battles that led to the most exciting America’s Cup in history are laid out in meticulous detail in “Winging It: Oracle Team USA’s Incredible Comeback to Defend The America’s Cup.” Written by three veteran sailing journalists, “Winging It” provides an insider’s look at the professional sailing business and the America’s Cup, from how the 72-foot cats became the boat of choice — one key qualification: They had to be able to be transported in standard shipping containers — to the design modifications Oracle made in the later stages of the series to beat Emirates New Zealand from an 8:1 deficit to retain the Cup — not much besides some minor tinkering with the rudder.

While some readers might find this book to be too detailed, it provides a far more sophisticated look at how this Cup came together than Julian Guthrie’s “The Billionaire and the Mechanic,” which benefited from exclusive interviews with Ellison but suffered from the author’s relative lack of knowledge about high-performance sailing. “Winging It” authors Diane Swintal, R. Steven Tsuchiya and Robert Kamins all are experienced sailing journalists and Kamins has been a contributor to for a decade.

Readers hoping for an expose on Larry’s dirty tricks will come away disappointed. The authors say Oracle’s come-from-behind victory was mostly due to improving crew work and tactics. Emirates New Zealand had an early lead because the team had more experience foiling, including during the challenger elimination series known as the Louis Vuitton Cup. But Oracle’s boat was faster and once the team figured her out they were able to exploit her quicker acceleration and higher top-end speed to grind out eight straight victories.

Oracle’s “hulls were narrower, probably creating lower drag in the water, and certainly lower in aerodynamic drag,” the authors note. Oracle’s foils were also smaller, reducing drag at higher speeds but making the boat more sensitive and trickier to control, especially at lower wind speeds where Oracle might be more inclined to cease foiling and drop her hulls back into the water.

The Defender’s boat was harder to sail well, and at the start of the racing they had not really figured everything out. The potential was there, but they weren’t achieving it.

Foiling is what made this Cup different from all others, and the authors illuminate a lot of the mysteries surrounding the development of these high-speed monsters that ride on their rudder foils and curved daggerboards. Extensive interviews with Pete Melvin and Gino Morelli of Morelli & Melvin Design reveal that even after winning the Cup with a huge trimaran in February 2010, Ellison and his team leader Russell Coutts weren’t sure they wanted to continue racing in multihulls. Oracle had only gone to the trimaran after winning a nasty court battle with defender Ernesto Bertarelli, ending Bertarelli’s attempt to race in huge single-hulled yachts. Under the default rules governing the Cup, if defender and challenger can’t agree upon a design the fastest boat wins, and multihulls are always faster than monohulls.

Ellison repeatedly said he’d prefer going back to monohulls, but Coutts and others in the Oracle camp kept circling back to multihulls for their excitement, speed — and general discontent with the technological dead end that monohull Cup boats represented. By the late 1990s AC boats were spindly craft with enormous lead bulb keels and competitors likened regattas to a contest to see who could push 50,000 pounds of lead around the course the fastest.

Morelli & Martin quietly and quickly evaluated a large number of potential designs, including monster 80foot trimarans, before deciding that 72 feet was the largest that human sailors could power without auxiliary engines to run hydraulic control lines.

“It was Russell in the end who decided to go with a catamaran with a wingsail,” Melvin says in a lengthy interview in the book. “The biggest reason for a catamaran was transportation.” The rules of the contest dictate that boats must be capable of being disassembled and transported in shipping containers, and reassembled within 48 hours.

The book also contains a fascinating chapter about the development of the lifting foils. While the designers who came up with the rule assumed some level of foiling would occur, they also thought it would provide no more than 50% of the weight of the hulls. But the Kiwis started experimenting with more powerful foils in test boats — being careful to keep them on the water when Oracle’s spies were around — and eventually came up with a curved foil with a sharp `V’ section at the bottom that lifted the hulls out of the water but provided progressively less lift as the boat reached maximum height and speed. The foils alone cost $400,000; each team was allowed 10 for the Cup match.

The design rule outlawed more sophisticated controls, such as trim tabs on the rudder and daggerboard foils, to cut down on cost and complexity. That decision  will probably be revisited if Oracle sticks with multihulls for the next race, given the difficulty of controlling these beasts at speed.

“When we wrote the rule, we honestly weren’t sure if we could fully foil,” Melvin recalls in the book. By the time he joined the Emirates design team, he says, they were calling the 72-foot hulls “a board-delivery device,” because the foils were so important to performance.

Oracle’s victory ultimately was a victory of big data. Each of its two boats had 300 sensors recording 3,000 variables up to 10 times per second, pumping 30,000 variables per second into an Oracle Exadata Database Machine. Sailors were outfitted with bombproof electronic tablets, wrist displays and Skipper Jimmy Spithill had a heads-up display linked into the on-board Wi-Fi system to constantly monitor performance and loads on the boat’s components. Comparing boat against boat, Oracle and the Kiwis were able to calculate optimal performance in any condition, giving sailors a second-by-second picture of how well they were doing relative to how well they knew the boat could perform.

The authors reject rumors that were rampant on the Internet after Oracle’s surprising victory that the Americans had resorted to illegal electronic controls and other tricks to hold on to the Cup. Design changes were all recorded 11 for New Zealand during the final series and 17 for Oracle. The authors conclude that most of Oracle’s “technical modifications were made early, but that a lot of the gains resulted from continual improvements in crew work and techniques through to the end of the regatta.”

Emirates Team New Zealand, they say, simply peaked early and had nothing left when Oracle’s superior speed emerged.

Source: Forbes

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