America’s Cup Sailboats Are Actually Airplanes

This new doc explains how some of the most radical racing in the world broke the drag barrier.

byMike Guy| PUBLISHED Jun 1, 2017 4:49 PM

The America's Cup racing series is not a boat race, it's an air race. The boats are airplanes that rise up on foils, using the same principles of lift as an aircraft—with none of the safeguards, and much of the risk: The margin of catastrophic error in Americas Cup racing is nearly non-existent. The ride is wild, the stakes are high. We know, because we've ridden on one before.

"Surface to Air," a new mini-documentary about Artemis Racing, the Swedish entrant in the 35th America's Cup in 2018, is a quick and stylish look into the dark, multibillion dollar world of radical shipbuilding, breaking the "drag barrier," and a little bit of elite athleticism. 

The modern America's Cup boat is a double-hulled vessel now running through qualifiers in preparation for the final regatta in Bermuda. They are 50 feet long feet long, built from carbon fiber and magic, and use 77-foot tall vertical wing that can harvest 50 knots of speed from a fraction of the wind. The competition is insane, measured in millimeters and decided oftentimes by imperceptible mistakes. 

"When the racing begins," one crewman says, "if you touch the water at any point, you're probably not going to win the race."

How radical is the design of these boats? Artemis team manager and tactician Iain Percy put it this way: "If you put this boat in the Amazon River, in no wind at all, with a 12-knot current leading to the ocean. If you wanted to turn around and go to the source of the river—in no wind at all—you could do it at double the speed of the current you're running against. The wrong way."