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Sailing On Air: MIT Alumna Joins America’s Cup Design Team
Foiling is a hot design feature for the 2021 America’s Cup, the world’s foremost sailing regatta, and Robyn Lesh ’16 will be on the front lines of the design team. They will determine the best way for the entry boat—a 75-foot foiling monohull—to shift from floating in the water to flying above it, a feat that will accelerate the boat’s speed by reducing drag. In essence, the goal is to sail fast in the air.
“A sailing hydrofoil is the water version of an airplane wing. Your hull is not in the water at all when you are foiling,” Lesh says.
Although foiling has been a feature of the past three America’s Cups, the upcoming race will push the technology much further. “The design of this America’s Cup will be even faster than the last one when they could go two-three times the speed of the wind.” In March, Lesh will join the design team in Santander, Spain.
Lesh studied ocean engineering at MIT while competing all four years on the varsity sailing team. “Ocean engineering was a good major for me because it is water-based application of mechanical engineering.” On the varsity team, she practiced four days a week and sailed in regattas on the weekends during a season that runs through the fall until the river freezes and starts again with the thaw. Although she loved the sport and won a number of honors, she hadn’t considered sailing a career option until her coaches encouraged her to think of sailing as a long-term commitment. They pointed her in the direction of Oakcliff Sailing, a high-level training site for sailors who have progressed beyond tradition means of coaching, located in Oyster Bay, NY.
The summer after her junior year at MIT, Lesh attended a high performance clinic at Oakcliff. She enjoyed it so much that she returned after graduation for the same clinic and ended up staying all summer as a full-time trainee. By fall she had been hired to be the high-performance fleet manager. Her duties included maintaining and organizing the fleet of complex, Olympic-class sailboats for charters, training, and racing. “I was also assistant coaching our high-performance and foiling camps, training with the coaches of some of the camps, training myself in the evenings, and racing every weekend in match racing or high-performance events,” says Lesh.
One of Oakcliff’s biggest appeals is that sailing luminaries casually drop by. That’s how Lesh met Terry Hutchinson, the executive director and sailing team manager of New York Yacht Club’s Bella Mente Quantum Racing, which is the only announced American entry for the 2021 regatta. He was “super excited” about Lesh’s MIT background and sailing experience; a few days later, he hired her.
“My time at Oakcliff has allowed me to round out the classroom learning I did at MIT with real-world experience,” she says. “The practical knowledge I’ve gained over the last year will be essential as we try to design the fastest boat for the 36th America’s Cup.”
The team’s first task is to design the prototype boat and get it built in the US and on the water by March 2019. Based on its performance, a second boat will be designed, built, and tested. This second boat, after testing and refinement, is expected to compete in the 36thAmerica’s Cup in New Zealand.
Lesh’s role on the syndicate design team, led by celebrated yacht designer Marcelino Botín, will put her academic and sailing experience to the test.
“I will be in charge of the weight of everything on the boat. It’s an instrumental job in that the weight distribution of every component defines the boat’s center of gravity, which is how the boat will balance, which in turn effects how the hull and the foils will be designed to make it foil stably.” Her job is critical to the balance of the boat and making the yacht sail in the air.
“The most useful thing from my MIT studies was learning to push past what you think is possible and to find what you are actually capable of. I realized halfway through my first semester that what I thought my abilities were, actually limited me,” Lesh says. “I could do more.”