Mast of America’s Cup defender courtesy of island designer
The win by Oracle Team USA in the 34th America’s Cup last month will go down in history as one of the most remarkable comebacks on or off the water in sports history. Jamestown resident Scott Ferguson was along for the entire ride.
The final that was held from Sept. 7 to Sept. 25 on San Francisco Bay was not the first for Ferguson. The Jamestown marine architect has been involved with the regatta dating back to the Stars & Stripes campaigns of the 1990s. His experience has included stints with Young America (1995), Luna Rossa (2003, 2007) and the Oracle victory in 2010.
Typically America’s Cup teams are reorganized after each campaign, but Ferguson was cautiously optimistic that he would be rehired by Oracle for the next cycle. That’s exactly what happened: Ferguson was the chief mast designer for Oracle’s successful defense over Team New Zealand.
The most recent cycle began with the AC45s that Ferguson helped design. He simultaneously worked on the boat designs of two Volvo Ocean Race teams, consulting for winner Groupama and third-place PUMA. By 2010 he realized he had to give something up. He ended his consultancy with the Paris-headquartered Groupama, but continued working with the more localized PUMA team.
“I realized that I had kind of gone overboard with taking on too much work,” Ferguson said. “The AC45 was coming on line that year, and we were beginning to design the AC72. There were just too many balls up in the air at that time for me.”
When the decision was first made by Oracle to sail the next Cup in catamarans, there was still some uncertainty regarding the mainsail. Ferguson said some thought was given to using cloth sails and bringing the wing sails on later, but ultimately they went with wings from the start.
It was then that Oracle team leader Russell Coutts came up with the idea of an America’s Cup World Series. The regattas would serve as a way to get teams involved early in the process. Organizers decided to sail the World Series races in AC45s, eventually moving up to AC72s for the Louis Vuitton Cup and the America’s Cup final in San Francisco.
“We decided that everybody could sail the AC45,” Ferguson said. “We gave them the technology we developed ... It was a big job.”
Design on the AC45 began in 2010 and continued into early 2011 when the prototype was launched in New Zealand. While the AC45 was a production boat, it was an extremely high-tech one that added to the stress level for the design team. Oracle eventually built five or six of the boats for its own use. It also sold a number of others to competitors.
Early on it was decided the Cup venue would be San Francisco Bay, but when snags developed in the negotiations, suddenly Narragansett Bay was in the picture for the America’s Cup finals. A successful World Series event had been held in local waters and organizers made some entrees to local officials. In the end, the Cup competition remained in San Francisco, and so did Ferguson.
“I was pretty excited that we might even be here for the Cup itself,” Ferguson said. “Potentially I could have worked at home.”
The start of the Louis Vuitton Cup was marked by gear failures aboard the boats of the three teams that were competing to face Oracle in the final. Sweden’s Artemis Racing wasn’t ready to compete at the start because it capsized in practice. The accident took the life of Artemis sailor Andrew “Bart” Simpson, and it set the campaign back several weeks. Without Artemis, spectators were treated to either Luna Rossa or Emirates Team New Zealand on the course racing without competition.
Ferguson said the early boat problems didn’t concern him. His focus was for Oracle to have a good boat for the America’s Cup final. That is where all the design team’s attention was focused, he said.
Simpson’s death hit Ferguson hard, however.
“That was the low point of the Cup,” he said. “I got pretty emotional about it because I know a lot of the designers at Artemis. It’s my biggest fear that something like that happens because of something you’re responsible for. It hits close to home ... The tragedy itself was awful, but it is a dangerous sport, and people have died in the America’s Cup in the past.”
Ferguson’s own team had experienced near tragedy themselves when the Oracle boat capsized during practice in October of last year. No one was hurt, but the boat was swept out to sea with a broken wing. It was nearly destroyed.
“That was one of the other low moments of the campaign,” Ferguson said. “It was devastating. At the time we were getting more and more confidence in the boat. It was only the eighth or ninth day we were sailing the boat and I guess we had a false pretense that because we were able to get up on the foils, we would have less of a problem with pitchpoling than with the AC45s. Obviously that wasn’t the case. We hadn’t figured out how to properly manage the bear away.”
Artemis returned to the water, but the team’s lack of development time and crew practice crippled them. They were quickly eliminated. Luna Rossa faced New Zealand in the Louis Vuitton final. The Kiwis were dominating, winning handily and moving on to the 34th America’s Cup to face Oracle.
The near destruction of the Oracle boat meant the team was unable to get on the water while the boat was being rebuilt. That put Oracle at a distinct disadvantage because New Zealand’s crew was out on the bay regularly, learning more about their boat and honing their skills.
“We were all watching the Kiwis and seeing how easily they were sailing downwind,” Ferguson said. “They were really stable sailing downwind, and they were able to gybe really well.”
Perhaps the most stunning innovation in this year’s America’s Cup was the ability of the boats to foil. The catamarans appeared to fly as both hulls came out of the water and were balanced on their daggerboards. The more effectively a boat could foil, the faster it went because the drag created by the hulls cutting through the water was eliminated.
“We were already a little bit behind on the foiling,” Ferguson said. “So first on the list was to be able to foil stably and get the control systems to work well.”
Oracle reached a point where they were satisfied with its ability to foil, but the team realized that the Kiwis were foiling through their gybes as well. That allowed New Zealand to maintain speed during a maneuver that would otherwise slow the boat considerably.
“We weren’t even close to that at that point in time,” said Ferguson. “We were on our back foot for quite awhile.”
The America’s Cup final began in early September. It was to be a best-of-17 series, with the first boat to record nine wins declared the winner. But just before the regatta, Oracle was penalized two races because it was discovered that illegal modifications were made to its boats during the America’s Cup World Series. That meant the Kiwis had to win nine races, but the American boat would have to win 11 to retain the Cup.
Seemingly in the blink of an eye, Oracle was down eight races to one, with the Kiwis needing just one more victory to take the Cup back to Auckland. The biggest problem for Oracle was that Emirates had a distinct advantage in upwind speed. Even when Oracle would win a start and lead at the first reaching mark, New Zealand would pass them going upwind and sail away.
Ferguson said the original thinking was that as long as Oracle could win the start and lead around the first two marks, it could hold off the faster upwind Kiwi boat by employing the proper tactics on the upwind leg. That proved not to be the case.
It appeared the Kiwis were about to close out the series when they had a lead of more than 1 kilometer approaching the final mark on the race course. There was a light wind, however, and Emirates Team New Zealand, though well ahead, failed to cross the finish line within 40 minutes. That is the time proscribed for the race. Oracle dodged a bullet that day, and then something miraculous happened.
On the heels of the near disaster, the decision was made to replace tactician John Kostecki with Olympic champion Ben Ainslie. That proved to be one factor, but not the only one, in what was about to happen. Neither Oracle skipper James Spithill nor team owner Larry Ellison was willing to speak much about what had been done to the boat in order to turn the regatta around, but Ferguson shared a few thoughts on the subject.
“We made some changes to the wing that were pretty big in hindsight,” Ferguson said. “I would refer to it as a major mainsail recut.”
Other changes included the removal of the bowsprit on the Oracle boat in an attempt to reduce windage. There were also changes to the rudder. The changes were done incrementally, starting small and increasing as they proved effective. The Oracle crew was making up for lost time in experience as well. Eventually the team reached the point where it was equal to the Kiwis in handling the complex AC72.
The regatta began to turn around for one simple reason: Oracle was suddenly faster upwind. Not only that, but while New Zealand foiled on the upwind leg on occasion – something heretofore thought impossible – Oracle developed the ability to foil through the whole upwind leg when there was sufficient wind. The American team began to win races. Even though they had to win two more than the Kiwis and were on the brink of elimination each race day, they eventually managed to tie the series at 8-8.
A one-race showdown was at hand, but in truth the writing was on the wall. Even Kiwi skipper Dean Barker acknowledged there was a problem the first time he saw the Oracle boat sail passed him on the upwind leg. He recognized it was an exact reversal of the situation that had prevailed a week earlier.
Through it all, Spithill would show up at the press conferences after each race and declare that his team had never thought of giving up, even when they were down 8-1.
“I’ve been on the same team with Jimmy for awhile,” Ferguson said. “We’re both pretty athletic. I’ve played a lot of things against Jimmy. He has a really fierce mentality of never giving up. He just keeps plugging along and he never gets discouraged. There’s a lot to be said for that because at one point all of us were feeling like it was pretty much over and making plans to go home.”
In the end, Oracle Team USA completed one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports history by successfully defending the America’s Cup. What is not widely known is that 45 minutes before the last race a problem with the wing developed on the Oracle boat. Ferguson and other members of the design team were called aboard. When he learned what the problem was, Ferguson began to fear that the America’s Cup would be lost because of something he was responsible for. Fortunately, the repair was made: It was a powerful glue that saved the day.
“We sent them on their way and told them it was OK for them to go sail the race and not hold back,” he said. “I was on pins and needles for the whole race. It wasn’t until the last reach that I felt that it was going to be OK.”
Ferguson said the entire team had been working for the last month without a day off. When it was all over, he said there was a great deal of emotional release and general happiness among all the members of the Oracle team.
The ending of one America’s Cup cycle means the beginning of the next. Ferguson isn’t sure yet whether he’ll return to work for Oracle. If it were up to him, he would like to see the AC72 return for the next Cup. However, he acknowledges the need to make the event more cost effective and attract more challengers.
For the time being, he is content to be back in Jamestown where he looks forward to training for the Laser Masters North American Championships later this month and sailing his A-Class catamaran.
“I’ve been on this emotional roller coaster for awhile,” said Ferguson, who is happy to be back in town, relaxing with nothing to do. “I’m feeling pretty good at the moment.”