Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . Full and By . Deploy the foils—mom and pop are going cruising at 40 knots

Deploy the foils—mom and pop are going cruising at 40 knots

2015 July 1

Long live the America's Cup!

Yes, I know, some of us have been disappointed by the morphing of this historic yachting institution from a respected international competition among sailors representing yacht clubs and their countries into a spectacle that features participants in helmets and body armor and is fueled by the inflated wallets and egos of billionaires and marked by shameless rule-rigging, but now we can again proudly embrace this once beloved sailing icon, for the America’s Cup has finally delivered on its promise to sailors.

The promise, repeated as each new series unfolded, was that the marvelous technology exhibited in America’s Cup boats would trickle down to us ordinary sailors. I’ve waited for this for years, hoping for at least a modest benefit, maybe something like an ergonomically improved winch handle or a solar-powered bilge pump, but in vain.  

Now, at last, it has happened. America’s Cup technology has not just trickled down to the masses, it has roared down on the face of a high-tech wave. Foiling cruising catamarans are here. Joe Everysailor can go cruising at 40 knots.

I’m not kidding. You can order a 40-foot foiling catamaran today. The builder describes it as a “cruiser-racer” that is “easy to handle and forgiving.”

For the benefit of those who haven’t seen videos of the Gunboat G4 under sail, I should point out that this boat somewhat redefines the term “cruising catamaran.” Cruising cats have been around for a long time. We know them as heavy boats with high superstructures that make up for stodgy performance with lavish accommodations.  

The likelihood of one of them getting up on foils is about the same as that of a cruise ship planing, though casual Internet surfers may disagree. On its website on April 1, Leopard Catamarans introduced what it called the Leopard 40F Foiling Cruising Cat, claiming a top speed of 40 knots. The accompanying photo showed a typical RVish cruising catamaran flying over the water on hydrofoils. Viewers who missed the message at the bottom of the page might have fallen for the Photoshopped joke. The message was: “Happy April Fools Day 2015.”

No Photoshopping is evident in the video of the first G4 sailing while elevated over the waves in a regatta off St. Barth this spring. The video shows the boat performing like one of the 72-foot cats in the last America’s Cup series, foiling at motorboat speed. Then the boat is seen heeling in a puff and not stopping until its bright orange hulls are sticking up in the air and its black sails are under water.

Give Gunboat founder Peter Johnstone credit for chutzpah. The capsize video wasn’t posted by some seagoing paparazzi, but by Gunboat itself—with no excuses. But then you could say the accident proved the claim about the cat being a “forgiving” cruiser-racer. The boat (and its crew) emerged unscathed from the turtling and went on to win Antigua Sailing Week in dominant fashion.

As for the “easy to handle” part, the crew might have missed that memo. The capsize sure looked like a case of operator error. When the puff hit, the headsail was eased but, contrary to the lesson most 10-year-old Opti sailors have learned, the mainsail remained sheeted flat. I probably should mention, for what it’s worth, that the mainsheet is trimmed by the helmsman with a hydraulic foot pedal and eased with a push button.

The G4 can get up on its foils in as little as 12 knots of breeze, at which point it achieves about 18 knots of boatspeed. One reason it can do that is that it weighs 5,950 pounds, less than a third of the displacement of typical 40-foot cruising catamarans. The weight includes four berths and an enclosed head.

The carbon fiber composite construction that accounts for this feather-lightness is not trickle-down technology—builders have figured that out without help from the America’s Cup. But the foils and other appendages that free the boat from on-the-water speed barriers are gifts from the Cup.

America’s Cup designers didn’t invent hydrofoils. They’ve been around for a long time. But the 2013 Cup series showcased them as never before and accelerated the evolution of their design. And so, with hints from the AC72s of the Oracle and New Zealand teams, the G4 has L-shaped dagger board foils and T-shaped foiling rudders.

The thrilling sight of those monster cats rising from the water and zooming over San Francisco Bay on their slender foils not only sweetened my then sour view of the America’s Cup, but opened my eyes more to the rewards of  multihull sailing.

A dyed-in-the-foul-weather-gear monohull sailor, I grew up believing that the finest manifestation of sailing was beating to windward in a weatherly, deep draft, heavily ballasted sloop. I’ve sailed thousands of miles dragging leaden appendages through the water. I tried to add up the combined weight of the keels of the sailboats I’ve owned, but stopped counting after 50,000 pounds. 

Moving that ballast through the water demands extravagant sail area and generates heavy loads on the hull and gear that require large crews. This is fine for racing, but problematic for shorthanded sailing, like when the First Mate and I want to go cruising alone.

So I’m thinking maybe the G4, an easy handling and forgiving cruiser-racer, is the boat for us. I can visualize us starting a cruise now. The wind has passed 12 knots, so it’s time for foiling. “Deploy the foils, dear, and rake them aft 2 degrees. Then please hang on tight and don’t distract me. I have to concentrate on steering and managing the mainsheet foot pedal and push button.”