NICK HOLROYD AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICA'S CUP CLASS

Prep Day 1 - America's Cup World Series - Gothenburg
© Matt Knighton

If one looks at the number of yacht designers, in recent years, who have had a profound impact on the evolution of America’s Cup yachts into the wing-sailed, multi-hull age there are only a few, select names on that list. Smaller still is the club that has pioneered the art of foiling in that format.

SoftBank Team Japan’s lead designer, Nick Holroyd, is in that club.

Since leading the development of the first-ever foiling AC72 catamaran with Emirates Team New Zealand in the previous America’s Cup, Nick has taken his expertise in computational fluid dynamics and applied it as he leads the design of SoftBank Team Japan’s next-generation America’s Cup Class race yacht debuting this month in Bermuda.

With the inescapable progression of the sport reaching a fever pitch this month as teams begin to roll out their new boats, we asked Nick what he sees as the future of America’s Cup yacht design.

What is your perfect America’s Cup boat?

[Laughs] Well, the joke is they all look good when they win. But right now, obviously last time around was the pioneering of the foiling. This time around, we’ve had time to take a step back - understand the physics more– and build the proper design tools intended for the purpose of designing foiling yachts. The progression there is the boats are getting faster. The 50’s will be faster than the 72’s even though they’re smaller.

How much progression have you seen in the past two years with foiling and multihull design?

The last couple years with the new tools available, the progression has first and foremost been we’re foiling in much lighter air. In less wind you have less horsepower so in order to be foiling you’ve needed to make some pretty big efficiency gains in terms of drag on the foils. To get those efficiency gains, we’ve had to make some pretty big advances in structures.

If you make the aviation comparison, you look at gliders, which are hugely efficient – they can soar for hours – and you’ll see those huge wingspans. They’re very efficient structures so we’ve had to make those types of advances.

What aspect of design will you be most interested in looking at the team’s other America’s Cup Class yachts come race day? 

As we see ACC's launching in the next few weeks I’m interested in the way various teams have approached compromises between straight line performance and maneuvering, the way various teams have split their available inventory of dagger boards – light vs. heavy air configurations or other ways of splitting those up. Those are the strategic decisions.

Once I understand what those designers were thinking in a strategic sense, then I can try and understand how they approached the details. 

If you had a blank canvas for the next America’s Cup, what areas do you see Cup boats evolving into?

The really big progressions in terms of getting around the course faster – which is really going to win the race – is in the maneuvers. To some extent we’re making those progressions despite the class-rule constraints. From my point of view, an engineer’s perspective, you’d really like the challenge of solving the problem. From a yacht designers point of view you’d love that blank canvas. Right now we’re dealing with the landscape we’ve got.

What has been your favorite part about designing the current class of yachts?

Being a little smaller, in designing the current class of yachts we can go through a design iteration, get it on the water, look at the results, understand what the results mean - all of that happens at a slightly smaller scale much much quicker. So in this game, we’re all pretty competitive and have small attention spans so it’s fun to speed that cycle up and progress more quickly.

Does having the one-design elements of the yacht help or hinder the development process?

So in the semi-one-design landscape, right now I think it’s a really good landscape to work with. We joke that the hull and cross structure are just delivery mechanism to make the boat go fast. In some ways that actually makes it more pure. You don’t get distracted with the very necessary task of making the boat strong enough or reliable since those components are one-design. We get to focus on the bits that make the boat go fast or maneuver better. The one-design are constraints but still make it a fun place to work within.