The America's Cup is the world's largest sailing event, involving yacht clubs from around the world. The event has been running since 1851, and has seen the introduction of cutting edge sailing technology over the last one and a half centuries that it has been competing. The foiling catamarans, examples of precision engineering at its finest, are manoeuvred by six people who control the sails, the foil, the wing and rudder. Each boat is broadly similar, as the design, shape and size is standard across all teams. The vessels use hydraulics to control the moving parts and each team is free to develop their own systems, providing the only power input is by the human hand. There is a lot to cover and it is hard work for such a small crew, especially considering that hand-cranking the hydraulic system to generate power for nitrogen gas accumulators is tough, physical work.
Emirates Team New Zealand opted for a pedal power solution to the hydraulics challenge, giving them a competitive edge over the others, by taking advantage of the superior power of legs over arms. Legs are four more times as powerful as upper limbs, and by achieving the hydraulic pressure required more quickly than other teams, their reaction times will be a lot faster. It is not a new concept in sailing, but no other team has actually used pedal powered hydraulics in the past, perhaps due to the engineering challenge of installing bikes on one of the narrow hulls of the catamarans.
Using the power in our legs as an input source for a hydraulic system is a familiar, yet niche idea. Hairdressers chairs, hospital beds and other medical equipment has relied on foot pedal operated hydraulics to raise and lower it for many years, as it is reliable, easily controlled and leaves the hands free for performing other tasks. In developing countries, pedal power is still recognised as a viable power source, used on washing machines, lathes and looms. The developed world, however, has lost its taste for human input for power, due to the wide availability of electricity. Combining pedal power with hydraulics is a great way of increasing the power output efficiently without using fossil-fuel based energy, so for the America's Cup catamarans it is an ideal solution.
The power available from the average person, pedalling for 30 minutes, is anywhere from 100 to 200 watts, and a professional cyclist could generate up to 400 watts consistently, or up to 1.5 kW at a rapid pace. Multiply this by four athletic team members and they could be generating anything up to 4kW over a 30 second sprint. That is a very impressive amount of power to come from four people; for context, a standard drill battery can kick out around 350 watts. The superior power generated by the hydraulic pedal powered system certainly made a difference in the America's Cup, as Emirates Team New Zealand clinched a comfortable victory. Perhaps next time we will see more crews cycling their way to victory?