Speed and Innovation in the Americas’ Cup

by Tyler Beckett

The Mariners’ Museum exhibits one of the greatest comebacks in sport with the AC72 that won the 2013 America’s Cup.

Mariners’ Museum

Mariners’ Museum

Legendary moments in sports history stay in our memories, but they tend to leave few physical reminders. Muhammad Ali only wore so many championship gloves, Babe Ruth only called the one shot. These tokens tend to end up in private collections or distant Halls of Fame, which makes the newest acquisition at the Mariners’ Museum and Park thrilling for fans of sailing and sports history.

Now hanging in the Mariners’ Museum’s main exhibition room in Newport News is Oracle Team USA, the 72-foot catamaran that won it all in what the Wall Street Journal called “one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.” Oracle was down eight races to one and staged a seemingly impossible comeback by winning nine straight races to win the 34th America’s Cup competition in 2013. The 11,600-pound carbon-fiber boat now straddles the exhibit room with its hulls, rudders and foils curving over visitors’ heads and dipping low enough for you to look at everything up-close. It captivates the space, and it becomes even more impressive when you consider how the catamaran got there.

“We really wanted to do something that was current,” says Lyles Forbes, the museum’s chief curator and vice president for collections. “What we wanted to do was delve into the technology, so we started working with Oracle a little over a year ago. We originally designed the exhibition around the possibility of one of their AC45s— which is the boat design they were sailing in this [2017] America’s Cup, [but] we weren’t able to get what we wanted. Around August, they called and said, ‘We have the 72-foot catamaran that won the 2013 America’s Cup. Would you be interested in acquiring that?’ All we had to do was pay for the shipping cross-country.”

The museum staff had to assemble the catamaran themselves with “no instructions, no diagrams, no nothing,” Forbes says. It took three weeks. Aside from a few leftover bolts sitting in his office, every part found a home. That was just the start of the exhibit.

What makes the AC72 so remarkable, and what the Mariners’ Museum chose to focus on, is the cutting-edge technology used to make it speed along at 50 mph using wind power alone. It’s mind-boggling to see and read about the science behind the boat. Especially exciting are the carbon fiber foils that lift the boat from the water to free the hulls from water drag and allow the incredible speeds. The boat’s speed and the small surface it rides on leads some people to say that this is more about flying than sailing. Regardless, this a dizzying feat
of engineering.

Aside from the displays and the explanatory signage, the exhibition features some of the tech gear used in the races. You can try out the bone-conducting headphones that allowed the crew to communicate over the roar of water and wind. There’s a section of the high-tech trampoline material that spans the hulls for visitors (especially kids) to test. Some of the intense training equipment that the sailors use to build strength and speed are there to try out—though any normal pedestrian who tries to approach the racing sailors’ best will likely leave with a hernia. The science displays were researched and packaged by graduate students Erika Cosme (Johns Hopkins) and Levi Warring (Washington & Lee). 

“The exhibit is going to be here for a long time,” Forbes says. “A good part of this story is timeless. We will always have the science and technology. We can take these panels out and put something new in here, like where did multihulls come from, how did they come about. We could look at other technological advances in the America’s Cup. The future of this space becomes a real maritime technology story.”

The AC72 is the new crown jewel of the Mariners’ Museum as it incorporates history and cutting-edge technology. Plus, it’s just cool to see and experience. This one-of-a-kind exhibit joins the museum’s already-excellent collection of maritime history, including exhibits on the Age of Exploration, the USS Monitor Center, model shipbuilding displays, the International Small Craft Center and even Legos and playground boats for kids to play with. 

Mike Ogar