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On June 2, it was announced that a challenger selection race for the America’s Cup sailing competition would be held November 18–20 in Fukuoka Prefecture. Originally awarded in 1851, the America’s Cup is the oldest sporting trophy for international competition—yet this will be the first time a related event will take place in Asia.

Positioned as a global city and gateway to Asia, Fukuoka already attracts a large number of cruise ships. But the smaller vessels that will fill the waters as part of the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series will bring new eyes and new tech to the nation’s fifth-largest city—and perhaps give the sport of sailing a boost in Japan as well.

The 35th America’s Cup will take place in May and June 2017 in Hamilton, Bermuda, with the main event being the America’s Cup Match. The Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series is part of the two-year run-up, and comprises 10 two-day heats that take place in nine countries. Fukuoka is the final stop. The current defender, Oracle Team USA, will face five challengers: Groupama Team France, SoftBank Team Japan, Emirates Team New Zealand, Land Rover BAR Team (UK), and Artemis Racing Team (Sweden).

The organizers have taken care to ensure that spectators onshore can experience those “feelings of victory and agony of defeat” in vivid detail. According to Sir Russell Coutts, five-time America’s Cup winner and current CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority, “the sailing action will be very close to the shore where people can see the race. Spectators can also follow on their smartphones, and it is easy to see who is winning or who is losing.” Indeed, they will be so close to the action that they will be able to see the faces of the sailors and hear every groan of the vessels.

Coming into play in today’s world of competitive sailing is cutting-edge technology, including onboard cameras, microphones, and sensors.

According to Ian “Fresh” Burns, Oracle Team USA performance director: “America’s Cup yachts have many rule-defined components. This makes the differences between the boats and crew performance the defining contribution for success. Having the advantage of access to the best technology can make a difference. It can add up to better performance across the board, and hopefully a match-winning advantage.”

In fact, Oracle Japan Senior Vice President Hiroshige Sugihara, in a presentation at Tokyo American Club on July 29, cited the placement of 300 sensors on the boat and its crew as a key to victory for Oracle Team USA in the 34th America’s Cup.

That would be unrecognizable to the first winner, in 1851, a US schooner named America (hence the name of the trophy). The boats of today differ greatly from the America. These AC45F double-hull catamarans, each 45–50 feet (14–15 meters) long and with a crew of five, are best-in-class technological innovations. They are built from ultra-lightweight material with daggerboards or foils. The daggerboard—a retractable centerboard that slides into a casing—causes the boat to “foil,” or sail with both hulls out of the water. And with aerodynamic wingsails that look like the wings of a vertical take-off plane, these boats can skim the water’s surface at speeds of up to 35 knots (70 kmph). Next July, top speeds should reach 50 knots (92.6 kmph)—three times the average speed of wind.

During the last America’s Cup in 2013, Oracle used 300 sensors to help Team USA win. This time around they are increasing this to 1,000 as they work to collect and analyze even more data about the ship and sailors. More than 80 percent of the sensors will be on the wing sail.

Another tech advantage will be provided by visual data captured using a drone, and audio recordings used to debrief performance. And Oracle Team USA will gain another edge still through a partnership with Intel to analyze fluid dynamics.

SoftBank Team Japan is also looking to use these advantages to its own benefit. It has organized the team—as well as training and tech with Oracle Team USA—and has formed a technological partnership with Oracle. According to Sir Russell Coutts, the New Zealander who has five America’s Cup titles to his name, this trio of good boat, good people, and good technology means that “Team Japan has a real chance at winning.”

Teams are led by former Olympic athletes, and multiple winners of past America’s Cup races. SoftBank Team Japan’s skipper Dean Barker is the New Zealander who led his team to the America’s Cup finals in 2013, and Manager Kazuhiro “Fuku” Sofuku participated with Team Japan in 1995 and 2000.


All of the data collected from sensors, drones, and other methods is fed back to BMW engineers, including Thomas Hahn and Christoph Erbelding. There is a great deal of overlap between high performance cars and catamarans—drag, power, and design—so opportunities for shared learning and two-way technological transfer are plenty.

Hahn explains: “We applied our analysis and optimization methods from the automobile industry to successfully influence the layout—meaning the number and positioning of various carbon layers—during construction of the boats. The BMW Oracle Team yacht was one of the lightest ever to compete in the America’s Cup.”

BMW’s work with the America’s Cup is now in its 14th year, and the knowledge gained has helped with the development of the all-electric BMW i3 and the BMW i8 hybrid sports car. The chassis of these cars is made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, the same material used to construct the high-tech yachts.

“We have learned a lot from our colleagues at BMW Oracle Racing, particularly the swift creation and evaluation of concepts,” said and Erbelding. “Paul Bieker, when in charge of the structural team and now head of design for Oracle Team USA, is an expert in this field. He has shared a lot of tips and tricks that have helped us improve our expertise in the area of layout and construction of carbon fiber prototypes in these dimensions.”

The intuitive cockpit design, as well as the absolute precision needed to steer the foils, comes from BMW motoring experience.

Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill, two-time winner of the America’s Cup and 2014 Sailor of the Year, makes split-second decisions depending on course position, wind speed, and adjustments to the foils that lift the boat out of the water. He explains: “Races with the America’s Cup catamarans are exciting to watch and incredibly fun to be part of it. The boats are unbelievably fast on the foils. However, mastering and steering these mighty yachts is very complex. We have not previously had an optimal solution for adjusting the rudder and foils. I am thrilled with the new system developed by the BMW race engineers, as the yacht that can ‘fly’ the longest has the best chance of winning the race.”

BMW Motorsport director Jens Marquardt said: “We have accepted the challenge to develop a solution for an optimal steering system for Oracle Team USA with great enthusiasm. This task gives us the opportunity to showcase our racing expertise in a demanding, competitive environment away from automobile racing. Racing is still racing—whether on asphalt or water. As such, we are entirely committed to the America’s Cup technology transfer project.”

Sailing—already a green sport—is enhanced by the use of BMW iTechnology. Said Grant Simmer, Oracle Team USA general manager: “We are delighted that we can travel sustainably and with minimum emissions on land as well. The BMW i Solar Carports are another important step.”

Through the combination of technological innovation and Big Data, the American’s Cup is serving as a springboard from which tech can benefit our lives both on and off the water.

But in the end, the Louis Vuitton America’s World Cup Fukuoka is not only about tech but also re-igniting the image of sailing in Japan.

“We are very proud to be a part of this historical sports event in Japan,” said Oracle’s Sugihara. “This first America’s Cup in Japan will be a strategic move towards the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. I am sure that it will be the best showcase of sports innovation with technologies.”

And as Oracle Team USA PR and Communications Director Peter Rusch explained: “Many Japanese remember the America’s Cup of the 1990s, with slow monohull boats that sailed offshore in races that lasted three hours. So Fukuoka is a real chance to bring the new America’s Cup boats, technology, and the best teams to Japan.”

Alana Bonzi is a freelance writer, CSR lecturer at Keio University, and co-director of SEGO Initiative, developing, planning, and fundraising CSR and sustiability projects for business and community.
The trio of good boat, good people, and good technology means that 'Team Japan has a real chance at winning.'