The BMW Oracle Racing 90 trimaran -- one of the largest, and possibly fastest, ever built -- hits the waters of Rosario Strait for initial sea trials. However, an ongoing court battle will determine if the boat is eligible to race in America's Cup.
ANACORTES — It’s not that easy to make the jaws of old salts drop around Puget Sound, where shipyards have been cranking out boats of every conceivable size and shape for more than a century. But a carbon-fiber behemoth stalking the waters of Rosario Strait this week is getting the job done.
One look at this trimaran — one of the largest, and possibly fastest, ever built — as she lifts her sails and leaps into the breeze off Orcas Island leaves no doubt: This boat wasn’t built to spend a lifetime plodding through seawater.
She was meant to fly.
Not literally, in a Spruce Goose sort of way. Although in early testing, even in light winds, the behemoth BMW Oracle Racing yacht — which, depending on a court decision, may or may not compete for the America’s Cup in 2010 — has lifted her side floats almost as far out of the water as Howard Hughes’ famous seaplane ever rose.
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This is all by design, on a boat that can squeeze 40 knots out of 20 knots of wind and might yet become the fastest racing yacht ever known.
Even to the untrained eye, the boat, officially known as BMW Oracle Racing 90, is an engineering marvel, one that went from blueprints to sails-up in less than nine months.
Her sleek, carbon-fiber main hull is 100 feet long, stem to stern, and 90 feet at the waterline. Her twin floats are 90 feet apart, side to side. If you dropped the boat through the open roof of Safeco Field, it would cover the entire infield.
When the boat is pushed from its dock by four bumper boats, it appears as if a piece of the shore has just calved off.
The boat’s three hulls are connected by sweeping, aerodynamic carbon-fiber beams that look perilously thin. They have a unique droop to them, making the craft, from the front or rear, look a bit like a Klingon Bird of Prey spaceship from an old Star Trek movie.
The carbon-fiber mast, the only crucial part not fabricated on site in Anacortes (it was built in Rhode Island) is more than 5 feet wide at its elliptical base, and 158 feet tall.
The sails are similarly off the charts: a 5,000-square-foot mainsail; a 3,500-square-foot headsail; and 7,000-square-foot gennaker.
The boat will be sailed by about 15 sailors, wearing protective helmets and high-tech garb that looks like it’s borrowed from NASA.
Those are about the only hard facts revealed by BMW Oracle Racing, which will complete initial sea trials here Saturday, then prep the big boat for shipping on a barge to San Diego a week later. There, testing will be ramped up, as syndicate officials await the decision in a court case which might render the boat essentially useless, in America’s Cup terms.
A bitter fight
The pursuit of sporting’s oldest international prize has devolved into a bitter legal fight between two billionaires: Oracle software icon Larry Ellison of the Bay Area and Ernesto Bertarelli, a biotech mogul who runs the Swiss racing syndicate, Alinghi, which currently holds the Cup.
Since successfully defending the Cup in Valencia, Spain, last year (Ellison’s team again did not make the finals), Alinghi, to put it simply, has been unable to reach agreement with all competing syndicates on a fair format for the next Cup races.
Ellison’s BMW Oracle group last year won a court decision that named it the “challenger of record” for the next Cup, meaning they would negotiate the next Cup’s protocol with Alinghi. When Ellison and Bertarelli could not agree, both sides began preparing for the next remedy under Cup rules: a match race between their respective boats with essentially no design rules, other than a 90-foot maximum waterline.
That is the lesson lingering from a 1988 America’s Cup challenge, in which Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes won a legal decision allowing it to race a multihull against a slower, plodding New Zealand challenger in a San Diego race now considered a low point in Cup history. Since then, it has been taken as a given that any Cup challenge without protocols agreed to by the defender and challenger of record would be conducted in multihulls.
That’s what sent BMW Oracle’s design team into trimaran warp speed on Puget Sound, where the team had built four previous conventional carbon-fiber monohulls with Janicki Industries in Sedro-Woolley, and where other useful composite-construction infrastructure exists because of the local aerospace industry.
But last month, Alinghi won an appeal of that court decision, and announced plans to stage a traditional Cup defense, in monohull boats with multiple challengers, in Valencia as soon as 2009. Ellison’s group is making a final appeal of that appeal, with a decision expected in February or March.
$10 million bet
If Ellison wins, the big trimaran could race for the America’s Cup in what by all accounts would be a spectacular best-of-three multihull match race with Alinghi in 2010.
If it loses?
The designers likely scurry to build a new monohull. And the trimaran becomes a big, fast, very cool, black-and-white elephant, with design and construction costs estimated to be as high as $10 million.
This boat is, in other words, not only a hedge on a bet, but something of a guilty pleasure, and the BMW Oracle sailing team, based for now in Anacortes, is treating it as such. Not even the world’s greatest sailing racers have ever seen anything like it.
“We’re not even at 50 percent yet and it’s already pretty impressive,” said helmsman James Spithill of Australia, the former driver of the Seattle-based OneWorld Challenge Cup team in 2002.
Spithill and famed helmsman Russell Coutts of New Zealand both were hired by Ellison after his most recent, unsuccessful Cup effort, and both are now in Anacortes.
Initial driving duties, however, have fallen largely to Frenchman Franck Cammas, hired as a consultant because of his expertise with mega multihulls, which heretofore have been built primarily for open-ocean racing, and reach speeds up to 44 knots.
The new boat has been sailed only in light to moderate winds, progressively increasing loads on its joints and surfaces. But even at about half speed, the boat is a marvel in the water, its speed deceptive because of its massive size.
When its center hull clears the water and the craft seemingly takes flight, riding on only the knife edge of a single float at about 20 knots, it’s a spectacular sight.
Needless to say, the boat, visible from miles away and accompanied by a half-dozen chase boats, creates a spectacle in the otherwise quiet waters in the waning days of summer around the San Juans. Seagulls steer cautiously wide of it. Snoozing salmon trollers are startled to attention and sent reaching for cameras.
And despite the thrill it gives the sailing team, there’s still a bit of tension in the air whenever the big boat lifts off the water. For each voyage, the boat’s tenders carry — in addition to telemetry equipment monitoring onboard sensors — a physician and scuba divers in case of emergencies.
Design coordinator Mike Drummond, mindful of the high-stakes poker game with Alinghi, skillfully dodged most questions about the big boat’s particulars this week. But asked what keeps him awake at night during testing, he didn’t hesitate.
“Pretty much everything.”
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.