The Experiment

Butler Whiting, airplane wing rigged boat, 1923 Negative # 1984.187.10231F

The America’s Cup, arguably the most venerable trophy in sports, has attracted the world’s best sailors and yacht designers since the first match in 1851. The first few challenges had no restriction on design of the yachts, although time was allowed based on tonnage. The keeper of the Cup is largely responsible for the making of the rules and their enforcement. As such, the America’s Cup yachts have gone through various changes in the quest for speed and numerous disputes in the enforcement of the rules.

In 1893, the Nat Herreshoff-designed defender Vigilant marked the end of the “wholesome” boats and made way for what became known as “the great sloops.” These sloops had enormous overhangs that increased the waterline length when heeled over and thereby increased the speed. The next five challenges were won by four more Herreshoff-designed “great sloops”: Defender, Columbia (1899 and 1901), Reliance and Resolute. Some called these sloops “rule-cheaters” and “freaks.”

The J-Class yachts of the 1930’s America’s Cup races were built to the American Universal Rule – it controlled the size and displacement, enabling even sailing. The rule allowed the waterline to be increased and without restriction in the sail area. The J Class boats were commissioned with a big Bermuda rig without a bowsprit. They were a grand sight indeed with a “big stick” (mast) and massive sail area – they were fast and very expensive.

After a 20-year hiatus of the America’s Cup (partly due to World War II) the NYYC looked for a cheaper alternative to the J Class and wanted to spark interest in America’s Cup. They decided on the 12 metre class, which was built to the International Rule, allowing fair sailing with freedom to experiment with design specifics. In 1983, it was an experiment with a winged keel – to make it “fly”- that brought the America’s Cup to Australia with the 12 metre Australia II. In subsequent years there would be many design elements of the America’s Cup vessels to make them fly: wing sails, multihulls, and hyrofoils.

Innovation and experimenting with power and sail is not new. For more than a century, people associated with yachts and hydroplanes have been looking for speed under power and to sail faster than the wind. Pictured here in 1923 is an experimental rig by Butler Whiting. Inspired by an article in the March 1923 issue of The Rudder magazine titled “The Aeronautical Aspect of Sailing,” “Butts” Whiting, yachtsman, obtained an airplane wing and fitted it to his Star Class hull. The image was published in the September 1923 issue of The Rudder in Hurrah’s Nest. After explaining the experiment and the handling of the wing sail, the last comment reads: “While it cannot be said that the rig is perfect, there are great possibilities for its modification. In the future – but then, we do not care to prophesy.”

–Carol Mowrey