Pelle Petterson - America's Cup

After four years the 36th America’s Cup is finally going to be decided in Auckland Will Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli manage to steal the Auld Mug back to Europe or will it be the second victory for Emirates Team New Zealand?

America’s cup is not just a sailing competition, it is also, or perhaps foremost, a competition in yacht design and innovation. Or, it depends on who you ask. If you ask Pelle Petterson, which we did, the short answer is yes.

The two teams have yet to meet on the race course: the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to a lot of things during 2020, amongst them the warm up competitions that were going to lead up to the America’s Cup. The competitors were not able to face off against each other before it was time for the real deal in Prada Cup in Auckland – the challenger series that took place in February. However, the Kiwis were left ashore for that one, left on the bleachers to watch their competitors duke it out for a place in the final on the Hauraki Gulf.  

Two times Pelle Petterson has found himself in the eye of the America’s Cup storm, and both times the journey ended in the challenger final. “We needed more than two tries” says Pelle.  

“My successes in World Championships and the Olympics gave me the chance to have a go at what is the absolute pinnacle of sailing – the America’s Cup, and allowed me to initiate to Swedish challenges, where I also took on the role as yacht designer. Of course it was very exciting to be able to develop and optimize something as extreme as an America’s Cup yacht. 

Pelle both designed and skippered the yacht Sverige for the Swedish challenges 1977 and 1980.

“It was a very interesting project which taught me a lot, and in the end I thing we did a pretty good job with the design of the boat given the circumstances. Perhaps we didn’t have enough experience or access to the best materials – we were a bit hampered by the nationality rules. I think we solved it ok, we reached the challenger finals but ultimately the Australians were too tough.”

 And even though Pelle didn’t instigate any more Swedish challenges he didn’t leave the America’s Cup circus. 1983 he helped the British syndicate Victory and in 1987 he was involved in Italian Azzurra as a sparring partner, skipper and design consultant.

“In hindsight, I think we would have needed more than two tries. It is the same thing now, you need three, four, perhaps five tries to win. You saw that also with Artemis Racing, they also got very very close.” He reflects, and reveals that he was involved in the challenge 2017 “I was really advocating the bicycles – the same solution we saw on the ENTZ boat – but they didn’t go for it, thought there wasn’t enough time. Perhaps it was there the race was lost, but we’ll leave that unsaid”  

“I actually follow this edition of the cup intensely and am up at four in the morning to watch the racing live. Sure, you are a bit tired initially, but I found the racing wakes me up quite quickly. I look very much forward to following the final between Luna Rossa and Emirates New Zealand”

The final of America’s Cup is decided in Auckland and starts the 10th of March.

“I have to admit that as a designer I was initially a bit skeptical toward the boat choice: it is very advanced, to be able to balance that big mono hull on the foils, it is a hell of a balance act. But now I am incredibly impressed at how far they have come and how they have managed to achieve stable flight and reach ‘decent’ speeds.”  

The boat used is called the AC75 and has an upwind speed of close to 40 knots. 

“The only negative thing is that we have yet to see many close matches, and there are often large distances between the boats and not much match racing. But it will be very interesting to see what happens when two teams who have really mastered the boat meet. I am very impressed by the Italians who look stable and have had and impressive development curve – so hopefully we can expect to even teams and tighter racing in the finals.” 

“I was thinking a lot about how much smoother everything looked on Luna Rossa compared to INEOS, especially in the maneuvers. Their grinders looked like they were positioned a lot further down so that the aerodynamics was a lot better than on the British boat, who also had a different pedestal system which looked more inefficient. They were fairly even down wind, but the Italians had a clear edge upwind.”

There are many who think that the America’s Cup is primarily a design competition.  “It is incredibly exciting to see the interplay between aero- and hydrodynamics and to study what we call the end plate effect, and how that has shaped the design of the sail and deck. And it is equally interesting to study the underwater bodies that are also designed to optimize aerodynamics and create lift.”

“The TV production is amazing with the numbers and the information you get as a spectator. Of course it would have been cool to see it live and up close from a chase boat, if not to get a sense of the speed.” 

On the question if he has a favorite, Pelle gives a very diplomatic answer: “I actually think they are pretty even, but I think it would be better for the competition if the Italians could bring the Cup back to Europe – I think it would increase the interest for the competition at large. I am also incredibly curious to see what kind of boat they would choose, I think they would be more conservative, so that we can get back to the close racing we are used to. Even if that is what is so cool about these boats, that they are so very extreme and the impressive speeds which they can reach.”

The boats have already written themselves into the history books, never before have we seen foiling mono hulls. But, on the question of which design moments have stayed with him, Pelle answers: “1983 the Australians had a very innovative keel, you could see that they had thought out of the box. And I remember that I then and there regretted us not having a broader range of competence in our design team, aerodynamic engineers and lads with other types of competence – if nothing else than to have as a sounding board. But it’s easy to say looking back.”

“I have a hard time imagining that we will see any design elements from the AC75 trickle down to main stream boats, they are not very practical, but a return to more conservative boats would probably change that”  

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