Nautical advances offer smooth sailing on road

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News


Perched precariously on a net at the back of an America’s Cup sailboat doing 40 mph, I am wondering if we might capsize, as two rival teams did the day before.

John McCormick’s crewing stint with the Land Rover BAR sailing team had him reflecting on the connections between the automotive and boating industries.

I am the guest “sixth” crewman on the Land Rover BAR boat, a $1 million-plus high-tech, carbon-fiber craft with a wing for a sail and foils below its twin hulls that lift the boat out of the water at speed.

My exhilarating experience ends not with a capsize, but in victory as the Land Rover BAR team takes its sole win out of several races during the series weekend in the Windy City, soundly beating even the much-vaunted American entry, Team Oracle.

Afterward, there’s time to reflect on the drama of the race and the remarkable synergies and connections between the automotive and boating industries.

Land Rover, sister brand to Jaguar and maker of the world’s broadest range of luxury sport utility vehicles, chooses to sponsor the British America’s Cup entry because the contest’s elite but rugged nature fits well with the automaker’s image.

There is no higher, faster or more technically advanced form of sailboat racing than the America’s Cup. As such it naturally draws comparisons with the world of Formula One racing. In fact, the CEO of Land Rover BAR is none other than Martin Whitmarsh, the former chief of the McLaren F1 team, one of the most successful in Formula One history.

“The scale is much smaller, but the challenges are similar,” says Whitmarsh, in relating America’s Cup to F1. Though America’s Cup craft are technically boats, the fact that they rely on aircraft-like wings (the size of a Boeing 737) for propulsion, rather than conventional fabric mainsails, means that the science of aerodynamics plays a major part in their success.

Engineering smarts that help cars cut through the air more efficiently while using less fuel also enhance the speed of racing boats.

And that is where Land Rover contributes a lot more than just sponsorship dollars. “We are delighted to be in Chicago for the first time — it looks like a great venue,” says Sir Ben Ainslie, Olympic medal-winning skipper of the British crew, “and to have our technical innovation partner, Land Rover.”

On hand in Chicago is Jim Johnson, Land Rover research project manager who leads the collaboration with Ainslie’s team. There are several areas of interaction, says Johnson. Most notably, the relationship gives the boat developers access to Land Rover’s sizable computing resources.

“We have expertise in structural and aerodynamic modeling that allows both the refinement of design thinking and the investigation of design options at a much more rapid rate than would have been possible had the team not had Land Rover support,” says Johnson.

In other words, the engineering smarts that help cars cut through the air more efficiently while using less fuel are also making racing boats faster.

As well as computing muscle power, Land Rover is helping the boat team develop on-board control systems with rapid prototyping and manufacturing expertise, two other areas the auto industry leads in.

Johnson’s team is also assisting with the application of “machine learning,” a key computing discipline playing a big role in the development of autonomous driving. For the boat team, this expertise “deepens the understanding of the factors that create both optimal speed” says Johnson, “and the ‘perfect’ maneuver when tacking and jibing.”

One benefit for Land Rover, adds Johnson, is a constant stream of talented engineers who are drawn by the excitement of the boat development project.

So the next time you happen to see an America’s Cup boat in action, keep in mind that it has more to do with the car you drive than you might think.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at