America’s Cup World Series Hits Fresh Water for the First Time

Everything you need to know about the upcoming Chicago race

Jun 7, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
2016

Sailing is set to become the next sport Chicagoans queue up to cheer for.    Photo: Ricardo Pinto/Courtesy of America's Cup

The Windy City is home to some of the top spectator-sport franchises in the country. Now, sailing is set to become the next one Chicagoans queue up to cheer for. The Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series takes place near the heart of downtown Chicago on Lake Michigan from June 10 to 12. It’s the first time in the event’s 164-year history that sailors will take to freshwater. With high-tech foiled catamarans expected to reach speeds of over 40 miles per hour, Chicago promises one of the most exciting races of the series.  Here’s what you need to know for race day.

The Objective

Like any race, you’ve got to cross the finish line first to win, but this one is made up of a points-based system spread over six separate races. The first three fleet races on Saturday are the shakedown events, but are nonetheless crucial and exciting: first place is worth ten points, second place receives nine points, and so on. For Sunday’s hotly contested races, points are worth double. Every race matters and each result carries more weight as the competition progresses. 

Six teams from around the world are competing for a shot at the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda. Chicago’s race—one in a series of an expected 10 races—determines the seeding and bonus points for the first round of Cup Qualifiers in Bermuda. 

The Venue

New York’s race in May was subject to light winds and especially damning currents from the Hudson River, and Lake Michigan is also expected to give sailors and spectators an exciting race. With the mile-long attraction Navy Pier serving as a race village complete with a 1,500-seat grandstand, Chicago’s expansive 18.5 miles of public lakefront offers ample room for spectating. 

“Our race course is really second to none,” says Tod Reynolds, the director of the Chicago Match Race Center. Navy Pier frames the course on the north with the Adler Planetarium to the south. An outer break wall surrounds the rest of the course. “The fact that we have four physical walls is really unique,” Reynolds continues. “The sailors really appreciate seeing that, and it translates the racing to casual fans much better.”

The Obstacles

Saltwater and freshwater have different characteristics when it comes to buoyancy, and given the highly technical nature of racing hydrofoils, this is bound to be of some concern to the crews. Since this is the first race with hydrofoils on freshwater in America’s Cup history, commentators and crew members are divided on the impact of freshwater on racing.

“Theoretically, the boats will need a higher speed to lift off and foil in freshwater since it is less dense than saltwater,” says Jack Griffin, a noted America’s Cup author, speaker, and editor. This effect, he suggests, is minor—except that the shore crews will be unburdened with rinsing the boats off after the race.

Others see the freshwater as a potential to reach new speeds. “If we get the breeze, we might set speed records in Chicago,” says Reynolds. According to Reynolds, once the boats are lifted the freshwater could actually lead to greater performance when just the foil is doing the work. Since the boats spend most of their time above water, buoyancy isn’t the issue—it’s all about viscosity. Freshwater is less viscous than saltwater, so that should mean less drag on the foils, Reynolds explains. “Some teams are thinking about bearing their foils, basically changing the angle of attack on the foil to compensate for that change in viscosity.”

While crews can count on freshwater, no one can ever fully predict the weather. Prevailing winds for Chicago in June generally come from the northeast, barreling down Lake Michigan. The northeast winds could result in speed records. However, should the winds swing west, the Chicago skyline could create one of the most vexing wind shadows these sailors will face all season. 

The Holeshot

Winning an America’s Cup World Series event is all about consistency. To earn enough points to get a shot at the podium, teams need results in all four races. For Australian sailing legend Glenn Ashby of Emirates Team New Zealand, Chicago’s course requires an aggressive strategy from the start. 

“There isn’t much room to wriggle out of tough situations with the race course confined by the sea wall and so close to shore,” Ashby says, “so starting and getting your nose in front early will be paramount.”

Leading the Pack

Emirates Team New Zealand is coming into Chicago hot off a win in New York. Furthermore, the Auckland-based team leads overall in the World Series standings. They’ve consistently placed well this year. However, Chicago is anyone’s game and any of the six teams stand a chance at winning. 

Defending America’s Cup winner Oracle Team USA has special ties to the Windy City. Founder Larry Ellison grew up in Chicago and attended college near the race site. “Racing in front of the American crowd is always a boost for Oracle Team USA,” says Oracle tactician Andrew Campbell. “If the crowds we had in New York are any indication, this is going to be great—and we know Chicago gets out for summer events.” 

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