Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Adventures with America's Cup

 AC45 boats race during qualifying rounds this year 
(AP Photo/Eric Risberg; The Big Story)

In honor of all the America's Cup excitement here in the Bay Area, it's important to understand how these massive boats work.

One of the fundamentals of sailing is tacking into the wind. This translates into forward motion for a sailboat, when you might otherwise think that the boat would list or sail backwards. In fact, sailing ships have a keel that stops them from being just pushed sideways. Therefore, they can only go forwards or backwards.

When the ship faces into the wind at an angle instead of head on, it's possible to set the sails so that the force of the wind is pushing a little bit back and a lot sideways. So let's say the wind is coming from the north and the ship is facing northwest. A good sailor can set up the sail so that the force on the sails is a little bit south and a lot west.

Since the ship can only go forwards or backwards, the western force overcomes the southwards force, and the ship goes a lot west and a little north. If you then turn the ship northeast, you can go a lot east and a little north. Now you're farther north than you started, even though the wind is blowing from the north. If you turn your bow directly into the wind however, you will go backwards as your sails cannot catch the wind. This is an excellent way to cut your speed.

The sailors competing in America's Cup all possess incredibly precise intuitionbuilt from years of practiceregarding the degree they should be to the wind. It is thrilling to watch them compete and race towards their goal. Although the excitement is over for the year, they'll be back next year for an intense competition that promises to be exhilarating!

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