Nine months to dominate the sea in the America’s Cup of sailing: “I have never seen such a changeable wind as in Barcelona” | Catalonia

Surely there is no better comparison to explain what it is like to sail on a catamaran that flies through the Barcelona sea than the proposal by Gautier Sergent, aerodynamic engineer for the Alinghi Red Bull Racing team. “It’s like going in a Formula 1 doing rally”, he says, and moves his hand up and down, simulating the waves of the Mediterranean or the bouncing of a car at full speed that struggles to stay stable on a cobbled road, who knows.

Sergent will contest his sixth America’s Cup in Barcelona next year, all with the mission of designing the fastest boat in the competition. And getting it in the Catalan capital has a crumb. “I have never seen such a changeable wind as here”, says the designer. And that is a problem. If the wind changes, the currents change, the waves and the conditions to which the catamarans of the America’s Cup of sailing have to adapt, considered the Formula 1 of the sea due to the speed they reach.

The Copa América traditionally seeks maximum speed. Experts admit that the technology and design of the boats are more important than the intervention of the sailors, as happens with the pilots in Formula 1, but the experience of Alinghi in their nine months of adaptation that they have been in Barcelona, ​​the only which has established its base in the Catalan capital, poses a possible paradigm shift. “Here, in the open sea, the water is more unstable and we can’t just focus on speed, but on a balance between speed and stability,” he points out. In the three previous editions, in San Francisco (United States), Hamilton (Bermuda) and Auckland (New Zealand), the maritime zones were more stable because they were within a bay and the effect of the wind was more limited. “Then speed was the priority,” says Sergent. “In Auckland [sede de la última edición] you knew you would have a week without wind, or with a constant direction. In Barcelona every day is different and varies during the same day ”, she compares, “and it is more difficult to get the design of the boat right ”.

The climatic changes are explained, among others, by the thermal winds that occur in conditions of atmospheric stability, according to Jordi Mateu, professor of Nautical at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC). The difference in temperature between the sea and the land, especially in Barcelona due to, among other things, the amount of asphalt, causes the cold air from the sea to occupy the space left by the hot air, which rises as the day progresses, and generates atmospheric movements. “In the morning the sea is like a raft but later, when it is hotter, the waves intensify. These waves can exceed a meter in height.

Alinghi Red Bull Racing's AC40 during training in Barcelona on May 4.
Alinghi Red Bull Racing’s AC40 during training in Barcelona on May 4. MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI

The orography of the land also conditions the irregular behavior of the sea. The coastal mountain range prevents the advance of the wind from the north, which reaches the coast after overcoming the Collserola mountain range on its sides. “The winds come in gusty and change direction on land, and this affects the waves,” explains Mateu. The waves require “an intense, persistent wind and distance [conocida con el anglicismo fletch en el argot] to grow,” he says.

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There are more differences. The Mediterranean waves are “shorter and with more crest” than the oceanic ones, which are longer, says Mateu. And the highest height of the wave [la distancia vertical entre el valle y la cresta] makes navigation difficult because it increases the risk that foils [las aletas inferiores que levantan el barco utilizando los mismo principios físicos que las alas de un avión cuando cogen velocidad] are out of the water and the front of the boat hits the sea as it does not have a point of support. “The higher the speed, the greater the risk of impacting if the water is not flat,” remarks Sergent.

There is more. A boat can feel the force of the swell in Barcelona without the wind, something unusual in the previous three Copa América venues. “The winds that occur in l’Empordà, which escape from the Pyrenees, generate a swell that can reach Barcelona”, insists Mateu. The boats can feel both the inertia of the swell that comes from north to south and the force of the wind in the city. “This combination complicates everything a bit,” says Nils Theurnick, Alinghi crew member.

The perfect ship design is the Holy Grail of all teams. And Alinghi, after nine months of studying the Barcelona sea, is confident of taking the lead over the rest of the teams, which will arrive in the city in one or two months. “Practicing in the sea where we will compete is an advantage, but the teams work with their simulators,” they explain from the Swiss team, which over time has become the local team because its sails flutter daily along the Barcelona coast. “The conditions in Barcelona can open up the competition a little more”, closes Sergent.

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