Riding his bike to work across the Golden Gate Bridge from his home in Mill Valley some 20 miles to the Oracle Racing base at Pier 80 in San Francisco is a commute that Kurt Jordan is ready for. The long-time America’s Cup designer is thrilled to be living back in the Bay Area doing what he loves to do best - designing not just high performance sailboats but the fastest sailboats in the world - after spending much of his 20-year career traveling to all four corners for his work. SailBlast caught up with Kurt to chat about working in the top design shop out there today:
What America’s Cup campaigns have you worked?
KJ: 1992 (designing spars for Dennis/Stars & Strips, Bill Koch/America 3, and Il Moro di Venezia); 1995, Young America ( PACT95); 2000, America True, 2003, OneWorld; 2007, Alinghi; and in 2010, Alinghi.
How did you get into the Cup arena?
KJ: I graduated from Cal (Berkeley) where I studied engineering and composite materials. When they wrote the new rule for the ’92 Cup they allowed extensive use of composites. I was right place, right time with my education and a few years of industry experience with composite material training. In the Cup there’s a lot of “old guard”, a lot of nepotism and it’s hard to get “in”. The new rule opened the door, as a lot of the old guys didn’t understand composites. I was hired in 1990 by Tom Omohundro as a consultant for carbon rigs. His company was up in Minden, NV. They built all the carbon rigs for Dennis, some for the Italians, some for Bill Koch for the ’92 Cup. So I got into the ’92 Cup through mast design, I worked with Bruce Nelson a lot back then and ultimately stayed with the Cup - this will be the seventh Cup I have worked. I still don’t admit that it’s a career really but it’s been 20 years!
How has what you do changed in that time?
KJ: Some of the materials have changed but not in huge ways. The techniques, understanding and analyzing them - the computer based simulation has grown enormously. That’s one of the big roles I play is managing that computer simulation infrastructure and the software that allows you to do that is so much better than 20 years ago.
What’s been the most interesting project you’ve worked on in the Cup?
KJ: I’m a little afraid to answer that because I’d have to say the last match - the dogfight, while I was still with Alinghi. It was much more interesting than version 3 or version 5 IACC boats. They were all fun and exciting but as far as the stuff goes that blows my skirt up, that was a high point - we just weren’t constrained by resources. There was a budget, sort of, which is why we didn’t go to a wing, we just got to the end and it was like, we need another six engineers and another ten million dollars and so it went on.
What’s your specific focus?
KJ: The stuff I do rarely has anything to do with what the boat looks like - the shape - but all the engineering - the types of materials and how to use them. With these boats, the carbon fiber construction - the number of layers you put on and how they’re lined up is all very critical. What I try to do is optimize the layout of the carbon fiber - to make it light, make it stiff.
What does the Oracle design team currently look like?
KJ: Right now, it’s roughly 20, probably about half of what I worked with at Alinghi in 07. On the engineering side there’s a group that deals with the sails, another group that’s dealing with the aerodynamics of the sails and the wing, another group that focuses on performance - shape of the hull, balance of the boat, and then another group of 7-8 of us that does the “nuts and bolts” - the design work that creates drawings that get built.
The AC 45 seems the perfect boat for the job. How could you improve on it?
KJ: Yes, we’re all pretty happy with it. There’s a lot of things you could do differently if you weren’t trying to control the cost of it even though they’re hugely expensive boats, it’s a one design fleet meant to get all the teams sailing in a hurry and to get everyone to the same level of understanding with the wing. You could make a much more complicated wing - more flaps, more twist control. Probably one of the biggest compromises is that it has just simple straight dagger boards. Everybody knows at this stage that state of the art would be curved foils that give you a lot of lift, particularly downwind, and foils that can’t rotate - that’ll be mainstay on the 72s. But for the one design its complicated and expensive and not the purpose of it. The protocol allows people to now modify the 45s with these foils if they want but they have to put it back to one design to race. But between races you can use it as a Frankenstein boat if you want to start to learn more about these things.
So you’re constantly designing/building new things and trying them out when you're not racing, like you've been doing here on the Bay?
KJ: Yeah, we have been actually (LOL). Everyone will be. I wont go into any details but with these boats there’s so much to learn. Even not messing with anything technological, just how to sail them. It’s kind of like the ’92 Cup. All of a sudden you have this big new animal and the gains are big. Unlike the version 5 boats where everyone was tweaking little things just to get a little bit more, the gains will be a lot bigger with these boats.
What’s going to be venue-specific as you work on the 72?
KJ: We don’t have ocean swells that we will be racing into so that changes how you view the design. Statistically, the wind that we’ll have when we race the Cup will be pretty strong. So there’ll be very little compromise for lights winds on these boats. If you had to race them in lighter wind places and it mattered, you might make compromises. An example is the pitch pole issue - it exists in catamarans, it’s part of it. Ocean swells make it worse. In the 45 on SF Bay, the waves are high enough that it kind of matters. The 72 is a much bigger boat. So everybody will be faced with trying to balance how much they put into the boat to resist pitch poling - there are features you can do to the boat - like more volume in the bow - that give you more resistance to pitch poling but will make the boat go slower of course. You can make the boat slower kinda straight line fundamentally but they do make the boats so they can push them harder so you don’t know which one pays off in the end - what kind of a fine line everybody’s going to have to walk, how safe do you make the boat from pitch-poling on the Bay - that’s very venue specific. You could really hurt somebody for sure, even on the 45.
Do you see some interesting (design) competition coming from the other teams?
KJ: Oh, absolutely. The cool thing about a new rule is that you don’t know what people are going to come up with. In version 4 or 5 in the America’s Cup, you knew what the boats were going to look like, pretty much. There’s kind of a traditional path given the rules that you kind of expect everybody will be in or near but there’s always the surprises, like the Be Happy boat with two keels, always someone who will come up with something different. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the teams with the smaller budgets who come through like that, they may decide it’s their only opportunity.
Where are you now in the design phase?
KJ: With the change in the Protocol which now sets the date to launch a 72 as July 2012 - it was previously January 2012 makes a big difference because it’s the period of time leading up producing drawings - things that we build - that’s really interesting - configuration studies - the honeymoon period. As time gets closer the pressure goes up, you really have to get down to the nitty gritty, you need drawings for the builders. That goal post has now moved six months so a lot of ideas that had got struck off the list because we were out of time are back in again. So, we now have more time for the fun part.
What are you looking for when you’re on the water testing?
KJ: When you’re out on the water testing you usually watch the parts that you design, the things that you’re responsible for, so to me what’s interesting is really the platform, the hulls, the beams and the dynamics of how they behave, like when the bow starts to stuff in and how the boat torques up - you can physically see it. And, just watching the wing is really interesting because you’re just not used to looking at it - what’s it really doing - it’s still somewhat of an enigma. It’s fun to watch.
Do you see the wing trickling down to mainstream boats anytime soon?
KJ: I’m a little afraid that it wont trickle down that much because the logistics (getting it in and out, docking it, leaving it tied up at night because it’s a sail that’s always up which can be a problem) of it are just hard compared to soft sails and most people wont want to deal with that. It’ll trickle down to the Moths and A-Cats, the top level of smaller boats but as far as bigger boats, I think it’ll be more of a fringe thing, not a mainstream deal. There are people building wings for small cats and it seems like its ramping up and you’ll see it a lot more.
From one team to the next, do you yak about what happened with the previous team?
KJ: With your contract with a team you sign non-disclosure agreements but I think it’s fair and legal to bring what’s in your head. You can’t bring your computer files and all that, but we wouldn’t have much value if you couldn’t bring your experience with you. It’s so interesting particularly after a time like the dogfight to hear what some of the other designers had to say - we all had our different view not only on the politics of the whole thing but on the design - both were very different - so yes, it’s really fun to talk to the guys.
* Kurt, 50, grew up in Berkeley, Calif., sailing on the Bay. He’s married to Jaydee and lives in Mill Valley, Calif., with their two sons Cole (12), and Bo (9). He’s currently teaching his kids to sail a Bongo (know what that is?) and he’s happy to be home. “I love being back here - honestly, I get all giddy when I think that I get to do this job and live here.”