Sailing on air

MIT alumna joins America’s Cup design team.

Apr 25, 2018
Robyn Lesh ’16 practices foiling, which reduces a boat's drag.
COURTESY OF Robyn Lesh ’16 (FOILING)

Sailing on air

MIT alumna joins America’s Cup design team.

Apr 25, 2018

When the next America’s Cup gets under way in 2021, much of the racing in the world’s foremost sailing regatta will take place not in the water but a few inches higher. Foiling, as it’s called, involves getting a sailboat to shift from floating in the water to flying above it, a feat that accelerates the boat’s speed by reducing drag. As a member of the design team for the regatta’s only announced American entry, Robyn Lesh ’16 will help engineer that shift for a 75-foot foiling monohull.

“A sailing hydrofoil is the water version of an airplane wing. Your hull is not in the water at all when you are foiling,” says Lesh, who joined the design team in March. The team, based in Santander, Spain, will design the New York Yacht Club/Bella Mente Quantum Racing Association entry.

Although foiling has been a feature of the past three America’s Cups, this regatta will be even faster than the last one, when boats could go two to three times the speed of the wind, she says.

Lesh studied ocean engineering at MIT while competing all four years on the varsity sailing team. Although she loved the sport and won a number of honors, she hadn’t considered sailing as a career. Then her coaches pointed her to Oakcliff Sailing, a high-level training site in Oyster Bay, New York, where she attended a clinic the summer after her junior year. She then returned after graduation and stayed all summer as a trainee. By fall she had been hired to manage the high--performance fleet. 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, and racing every weekend,” says Lesh.

Sailing luminaries casually drop in at Oakcliff, which is how Lesh met Terry Hutchinson, the executive director and sailing team manager of the New York Yacht Club/Bella Mente entry. She says he was “super excited” about her MIT background and sailing experience; a few days later, he hired her.

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. Its performance will inform the design of the boat that is expected to compete in the 36th America’s Cup in New Zealand.

Lesh’s role on the 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,” she says. “It’s an instrumental job in that the weight distribution of every component defines the boat’s center of gravity.” Her job is critical to maintaining the balance of the boat and making it 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.”