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The Race for the ‘Auld Mug’

Liam Shanahan ’18 combines engineering and sailing skills to elevate the 37th America’s Cup challenge.

WPI alumnus Liam Shanahan with the American Magic racing team in Barcelona

For over a century, the America’s Cup trophy sat cloistered in a wood-paneled room at the New York Yacht Club, entirely untouched by human hands.

More than just an antique curiosity, the silver pitcher known as the “Auld Mug” represents what may be the most challenging competition in international sports. After a historic upset sent the trophy to Australia in 1983, the America’s Cup has changed hands six times and is currently under the stewardship of the 2021 champions, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. This coming fall, the 37th America’s Cup race will decide which country will host the “Auld Mug” next.

Few sporting events capture a sailor’s imagination more than the America’s Cup, and Liam Shanahan ’18 counts himself among the enchanted. However, during this year’s competition in Barcelona, Spain, he will be more than just a spectator. As an engineer on the American Magic team, Shanahan hopes that his handiwork will help bring the trophy back to its original home in New York.

His path to this moment may have been paved with a little good luck, but to those who know him, his success comes as no surprise. In fact, Shanahan’s passion for sailing began almost 20 years ago, when he started skimming across Lake Winnipesaukee’s sun-dappled waters as a 10-year-old boy—with a stop on the WPI campus along the way.

Auld Mug

Learning the Ropes

Shanahan was feeling the pressure. It was his junior year in high school, and he needed a winning idea for the upcoming Massachusetts State Science Fair. He struggled to find a project that felt both winnable and personally exciting. “My friends were testing things like cancer prevention in dragonflies, or the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. My biology teacher noticed I wasn’t very motivated by those topics and asked, ‘What’s something you really care about?’” After a little thought, Shanahan offered, “Well, there are these new sailboats that interest me.”

Several years prior, one of Shanahan’s neighbors noticed his interest in sailing and offered him a Sunfish dinghy in need of repair. He patched the craft and set sail for a summer of watery adventure. “I fell in love with the freedom,” he says. “As a 10-year-old kid, I could take this boat out and go for miles, exploring the lake by myself.” The experience spurred him to join a junior racing program, where he soon became an instructor for other nascent sailors.

WPI alumnus Liam Shanahan and the American Magic racing team

His young imagination was soon captivated by the AC72, a foiling yacht known to fly at high speeds just above the water’s surface. The AC72 also featured rigid sails, an alternative to traditional canvas sails, and Shanahan was curious as to how much speed this innovation brought to a racing yacht. “These sails look like the wing of a 747 standing upright,” he explains. “I wanted to measure how much more performance you could really get out of them.” However, to run the experiments he had in mind, he would need a knowledgeable mentor to guide his research. His high-school teacher knew just the person: enter Ken Stafford, a WPI robotics engineering professor and fellow sailing enthusiast.

Shanahan reached out to Stafford and explained his idea to compare various sail designs. His would-be mentor was more than happy to lend a hand, but quickly dismantled the idea that winning was the ultimate goal. “I asked Ken, ‘Ok, how can we pull together a project that’ll win?’” recalls Shanahan. “His response was, ‘Who cares about winning? Let’s do something fun!’” Stafford’s appeal landed, and Shanahan leaned into learning for learning’s sake. The duo developed sail models in various materials and tested them for lift and drag in a wind tunnel at WPI. Their work merged two interests that the young Shanahan had not previously considered compatible: a love for sailing and an emerging interest in engineering. “Up to that point, I thought engineering was a pretty stiff subject, but the work I did with Ken sparked my interest—and opened my eyes to WPI,” he says.

Stafford thought of Shanahan as more than just a high-school student executing a school project; he saw a future engineer and sailing professional in the making. “I’ve never seen someone with so much confidence and tenacity,” Stafford recalls. “He knew what he wanted, and that I was the guy who could get him there.” He introduced his mentee to the science behind good ship design, including fluid dynamics and the fundamentals of aerospace engineering. Their work paid off when, even without it being the original goal, Shanahan won first place in the Massachusetts State Fair regional competition. Soon after, he received his acceptance letter from WPI.

As a student at WPI, Shanahan followed his passion for sailing, a pursuit that kept him in Stafford’s orbit. He joined the sailing team, for which his mentor served as the faculty advisor, and he quickly rose in the ranks. “Even as a freshman, he was a rock star on that team,” says Stafford, noting that Shanahan became the team’s skipper much earlier in his academic career than is typical. “Liam understood the science of sailing, but he also understood the art of it, which is baffling to a lot of scientists.”

Liam understood the science of sailing, but he also understood the art of it, which is baffling to a lot of scientists.

Ken Stafford

When it came time for Shanahan to select a Major Qualifying Project, Stafford invited him to join his SailBot team. Combining robotics engineering with the rigors of sailing, the SailBot project required students to build a one- to two-meter boat capable of both remote and autonomous sailing. The team’s final design then competed in the challenging International Robotic Sailing Competition, a race that brings participants from as far away as Brazil. “With a typical mobile robot, you aim the wheels and it goes in that direction. But with sailing, you can point a boat in the direction you want it to go, but it won’t necessarily go there,” says Stafford. “It’s just not that simple.”

Shanahan threw himself into the SailBot challenge. While his teammates tackled the electrical engineering challenges posed by a network of sensors and a complex navigation system, he used his sailing know-how to make informed tweaks to the boat’s structural design. “I could contribute mechanically, designing sails and hull shapes, but to make a robot that could measure the wind, map its own course, and sail on its own, I really looked to some of the other guys on the team,” he says.

Over time, the team designed an autonomous watercraft that could chart its own course around buoys, correcting for wind speed and adjusting ballast as necessary. Their design also borrowed heavily from Shanahan’s high-school science project, including a rigid wing option that had become standard in the high-speed sailing world. “The sail Liam designed as our back-up was so beautiful, I was worried,” says Stafford. “I told him, ‘You’ve messed it up! Your design is so good, no one’s ever going to want to try the canvas sail again.’” Not only did Shanahan and his team place first in the competition, they earned WPI’s coveted Provost’s MQP Award.

As Shanahan approached graduation and considered his career options, he kept in mind his experience with the Sailbot project. “I assumed that engineering had to be pretty dry, but the MQP helped me realize I could have a job that I actually like and is fun.” Through this lens, one aspiration remained his North Star. “The dream was to be an America’s Cup yacht designer,” he admits. Shanahan would soon learn another life lesson: Good things come to those who wait.

When the Ship Comes In

Despite Shanahan’s yacht-sized ambitions, his postgraduate career began on a conventional track. Shortly after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, he landed a job working for the U.S. Air Force as an aircraft systems engineer. Although the position helped him hone his practical experience, it also put into sharp relief what he wanted—and did not want—from his next career move. “Coming from WPI, I was used to a really fast pace, and I craved that intensity,” he says. In contrast, many of his co-workers were nearing retirement, with a lifetime of engineering adventures already under their belt. He soon left the stability of his Air Force job for the uncertainties of freelance work. He and his fiancée moved to Salt Lake City, where he began networking with sailing and ski companies to win contracts.

His big break came while working on F50 yachts for SailGP, an international sailing competition that hosts Grand Prix races around the world. “I was one of the technicians who would fix the boats when they broke, and I was surrounded by the best sailors in the world,” he explains. “But it’s the same group of people in the SailGP circuit as you find in the America’s Cup circuit, so this was my foot in the door.”

Liam Shanahan on the American Magic racing yacht in Barcelona, Spain

In the fall of 2021, he received “The Call.” The American Magic team, which represents the New York Yacht Club, had assembled at their training base in Pensacola, Fla., and invited Shanahan to join them as a mechatronics engineer. If it was intensity he craved, he found it in his new position. During his first week, he unloaded shipping containers in a string of 12-hour days. The backbreaking work also introduced him to the American Magic team’s culture of equals. “Nobody is above the hardest work here,” he says. “The sailors are getting paid millions, and they’re mopping the floors. The COO is also right over there doing the heavy lifting with us.”

As the weeks passed, the complexity of his tasks increased, as did the gravity. “I told myself that I’d work as hard as I could when I got here. And then I arrived and realized, ‘Oh, that’s not enough,’” he says. “For the people I work with, this is the most important thing in the world. They brought me here because they needed a good engineer from a good school, but they’ve made sacrifices throughout their lives to be here.”

The 37th America’s Cup, to be held in October 2024, will feature the AC75 yacht, a 75-foot monohull with hydrofoils and no keel. The American Magic team hired Shanahan to design the wiring system for the ship’s steering wheel, an intricate interface that allows a ship’s helmsman to control many of the boat’s functions with the push of a button: Foils rise from the water; sails trim to match the wind’s direction. However, Shanahan’s responsibilities have come to include a redesign of the boat’s cockpit, from ergonomics to display layout. This role is especially important, given the innovation behind this year’s boat design.

The American Magic racing yacht flies over the water in Barcelona, Spain

In past races, a single helmsman would man two steering wheels—located on either side of the craft. As the ship leans, the helmsman and crew run to the boat’s high side to provide ballast. However, valuable seconds are lost in the time it takes for the helmsman to move from one steering wheel to the next. This year’s race will see most teams using two helmsmen, one for each steering wheel, who will be anchored in the cockpits—similar to the driver in an F1 race car.

“My job is to make sure the drivers have easy access to their functions,” he says. “You can make an insanely fast boat, but if you can’t extract all the performance because you can’t reach the buttons, you’re wasting potential.”

Throughout its history, the America’s Cup has been as much a development platform as a sailing competition. From the introduction of the winged keel in 1983 to this year’s debut of a double cockpit, innovative designs are an essential part of the race. “The prestige is what drew me, but the development is what’s making me stay,” says Shanahan. “Because the boat changes radically from campaign to campaign, it makes for a fantastic sandbox for engineers.”

In the summer of 2023, the American Magic team relocated its base of operations to Barcelona, this year’s host city, in a move required for all competing teams. “Every morning when I bike to work, I pass the British and Italian teams. I can walk to the beach during lunch and see four boats going back and forth,” says Shanahan, noting how immersed he’s become in the America’s Cup culture. “Being here means experiencing the full gravitas of this event.” 

Though Shanahan mostly watches his team’s trial runs from the shore, he keeps close tabs on how well his designs perform on the water. He outfits sailors with GoPro cameras to capture their experience in real time, and spends hours in a sailing simulator to replicate what the crew might feel in the heat of a race. However, no amount of data collecting, design tweaking, or on-the-water testing will entirely put his mind at ease. “I’m terrified that we’ll lose because the thing I designed failed, and that’s driving me to neurotic perfectionism,” he admits. And though the stakes for Shanahan may be high, his mentor’s perspective on what matters most is never far off. “Look, the bottom line is that I’m thrilled to be here,” he says. “What’s the point of life if you’re not doing what you love?”

Reader Comments


  1. L
    Linda A S Childs

    Liam, your life has been that of hard work and extreme dedication and effort.
    Your angel has been there on your shoulder, guarding you all the way. I am so proud to have you as a cousin.
    You are living the dream most could not imagine.
    Barcelona and Istanbul have been two of my favorite cities.
    I wish I could be there for your wedding. I will be thinking of you two on your special day.

    Happy trails,
    Cousin Linda

  2. L
    Laurel galkowski

    What a fabulous young man!! Mother in heaven is guiding him and protecting him proudly!!!!

  3. R
    Ronda Lussier

    So proud of you Liam and excited to welcome you into our family officially next month! May American Magic bring home the Auld Mug in October! Routing for Team Shanahan!!

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