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America's Cup for Idiots: An Abbreviated History of Cheats

Key technological advances in the chase for the Auld Mug.

The Apple-Bow’s Demise (1851): The New York Yacht Club’s John Cox Stevens challenged the old world shipbuilding orthodoxy that boat hulls should be “apple-bowed”—plowing through the water with a broad-chested front—by building a symmetrical boat (auspiciously named the America) with a body like a hydrodynamic dagger. The new design led one English Lord to exclaim before the race, “if she is right, we must all be wrong.” The English were wrong.

The Wavering Waterline (1903): Hull length determines max speed, so rules hold that boats can be no more than 90 feet long at the waterline. Naval architect Nathanael Herreshoff abided by the letter of the rule, if not the spirit, with his Reliance, a ship with cartoonishly long overhangs. On the move, with wind filling its 16,000 square feet of sail, the hull would lean into the water, bringing the waterline length to 130 feet. in the final race, Reliance beat the challenger by three miles.

The Upside-down Winged Keel (1983): The America’s Cup had sat in the New York Yacht Club since 1851. Then came the Australians. Using all the computational power that Reagan-era computers could muster, Ben Lexcen designed an odd-looking keel that hung low and heavy in the water, increasing stability and allowing the boat to make tighter turns and carry more sail. The New Yorkers called foul in a series of legal challenges dubbed “Keelgate,” but to no avail.

The Hard-Winged Catamaran (1988): Nowhere in the Cup’s official rules does the word “catamaran” appear. Exploiting this loophole, the San Diego Yacht Club designed a 60-foot double-hulled boat—by the laws of physics much faster than any monohull at high wind speed. It was also outfitted with a carbon-fiber mast carrying a single sail segmented into eight adjustable sections. The race itself was no contest, and, by all accounts, a pretty boring trouncing to watch.

The Daggerboard (2013): This year’s AC72s provide plenty to marvel at. Their carbon-fiber and epoxy bodies make them 1/20th as heavy as the lead-keeled yachts of the ’80s. Thanks (or blame) for their tremendous speed goes in part to the vessels’ dagger-boards, retractable foils that can be lowered into the water as the boats start to move, lifting the catamarans above the chop of the waves. Skipping along the surface with treacherously little drag, these boats literally fly.

Read More America's Cup

How To Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the America's Cup
The Year in Fail 
America's Cup Magnate or James Bond Villain?
A Field Guide to Fans
Ask a Bookie

An Abbreviated History of Cheats
Pier vs. Couch

The Fair-Weather Fan's Racing Calendar
Will Larry Ellison Actually Be Sailing?

What Happens If There's No Water?
Which Team Should You Root For?

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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