36th America’s Cup – Glorified sailing barges?

It’s three days into the Prada Cup – the qualifier series to decide who takes on Team New Zealand in the 36th America’s Cup and we have come to the conclusion that this year’s boat design has some similar characteristics to our own sailing barges.

The high stakes drama that has been unfolding has been captivating – boats literally flying around the course at close to 50mph. The UK’s entry ‘Britannia’ playing the comeback kid – written off three weeks ago, now undefeated and then there is the US team – ‘American Magic’, demonstrating their wizardry by making the ship disappear beneath the waves following a capsize today.


Each race is only 45 minutes long maximum with a simple multiple windward/leeward leg on a narrow course which ensures tactics play a massive part and the racing is always relatively close.

The America’s Cup claims to be the oldest sailing race in the world still running, beginning in 1851, with the Thames Sailing Barge Match first run a few years later in 1863. However, a couple of years ago a cup was unearthed for the Medway Barge Match, which intimated that this race (next edition to be held on Saturday 22nd May 2021), may be even older. The Match was previously believed to have begun in 1880, so more evidence is being sourced before announcing to the world that the America’s Cup is not, in fact, the oldest sailing race in the world!

But back to the ships. Whilst on first appearance, the AC75 and a Thames sailing barge have little in common, hearing that the American boat capsized as the running backstay was not let go, reminded us of our own rig and the importance of managing the backstays. Whilst cocking this important job up on a barge is unlikely to result in a capsize, it can result in you losing your topmast, which is hassle enough. You definitely would not want to be the one responsible for forgetting to pull it in/let it go at the right time and we are sure there is an American crewman keeping his head pretty low right now.

Broken mast
What happens if you do not tend the backstays…

One of the main design features of the AC75 is the flat bottomed hull and leeboards foils that hang on the side – not too dissimilar a sight to our old barges. However, whilst the skipper or mate on a barge can be expected to raise and lower the boards themselves using the crab winch, the AC75’s are controlled by a computer! If a 60 year old barge skipper with a beer gut and fag in the mouth can wind a leeboard, surely with all the training the ‘grinders’ on the modern yachts undertake, you’d have thought that would have been part of the challenge?

The America’s Cup teams train for years, putting their lives on hold to achieve the perfect ‘grind’. We have Pat, who just needs a cup of tea and dark chocolate biscuit to get him going.

Whilst we are considering adapting the leeboards on Edith May, we have not yet been able to work out what size foil would be required to get her ‘flying’. With a displacement of say, 100 tons, compared to AC75’s 6.5tons, we estimate the mast would need to be extended to around 400ft tall and the crew’s beer left on shore to reduce weight. Concerns have been raised as to whether we would then pass the MCA’s stability calculations.

Watching the boats bomb around the course at 50mph, a Thames sailing barge vs AC75 might seem like an unlikely match up, but having seen how slow the boats are when the wind goes light and they are not foiling, we reckon it would be a good contest on one of those hazy calm Blackwater Matches in midsummer. We’ll be issuing a formal challenge to the winner of the Cup in due course.

The racing continues in a few days time and whilst we probably won’t be setting an alarm to watch the round robin races live at 2am, all the highlights and re-runs are worth checking out on the America’s Cup Youtube channel.

The winner of the Cup gets to choose the format and yacht design for the next race. so good luck Sir Ben and if you win, give a little thought to making the next edition’s boat design a spritsail rig, wooden box with leeboards – we’ve been perfecting it for the past 200 years and the defence would be a shoo in!

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