Both my engineering brain and my sailing brain perk up every time I read about sail boat technology, an industry that combines cutting edge design with miracle materials in order to send a crew across the water at speeds faster than the wind (read the wikipedia article to begin to wrap your head around the idea, its worth it.)

The America’s Cup is the pinnacle of the international sailing world. Every few years, countries battle for worldwide bragging rights. Named after the first boat to win the competition, The America’s Cup has been around for over 150 years. Each new competition heralds in more aggressive technologies. I began to look at the evolution of the boats over the last few centuries. All the way from classic 200-ton schooners, to sleek 11-ton flying catamarans.

A good way to get an idea of the boats is to look at their Sail Size to Weight ratio as it provides a rough estimate of the acceleration and max speed these boats can acheive. (Though it doesn’t fully account for the hydrofoil lift, and massive down wind sails modern boats have).

Sail Power

As you can see, from years 1850 to 2000, a miniscule rate of innovation occurred. Power ratios increased by only a few points per year. All of these boats were typical monohulls with either a schooner (see 1851) or sloop (see 1988) rig. As we reached the 21st century, the entire industry changed. High end sailing morphed into a high adrenaline, highly financed spitting contest between billionaires. And honestly, we are all better for it. These boats are jaw dropping. Eight million dollars of pure efficiency.

Now we have moved into the realm of carbon fiber, hydrofoils, and massive down wind sails. The chart makes this categorical shift obvious, displaying a huge step increase in Power Ratios that occurred in the 21st century. These boats accelerate to speeds over 47 Knots (50 MPH). I could watch these boats move for hours. Take a look for yourself.

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