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When offshore sailboats fly sailing has entered sci-fi

2020 January 1

Footage of the foiling IMOCA 60s is sci-fi. And I’m not just talking about the sailing shots. 

Watching the new Apivia emerge from its shed is like seeing a stealth fighter jet for the first time. Reverse sheer. Reverse bow. Inverted decks. Giant outriggers. Huge twin foils tipped skyward like falcon wings caught by high-speed, stop-motion photography. One expects jet engines to fire and the boat to launch down and off of a runway on a sortie.

Engines, it turns out, are unnecessary apart for the need to generate electricity, but flying is exactly what these boats do.

A multigenerational fleet of 29 IMOCA 60s started the 2019 Transat Jacques Vabre race from France to Brazil featuring a handful of brand new foilers. It was a test of evolving technology. With breeze on, the boats without foils—cutting edge just months ago—are comparatively slow. Boats retrofitted with foils are faster. But the purpose-built foiling machines set a new bar. At the time of this writing, the leading Gen II IMOCA 60s were just behind three Multi50 trimarans and every other boat had been left in the dust.

Since the IMOCA 60 is a monohull open rule (anything not expressly not permitted is permitted), designers have been unleashed. Material and computer science and structural engineering are being stretched to build the fastest offshore monohulls of their size and range ever created: nearly autonomous singlehanded sailing boats promising speeds of 30 knots for hours at a time, peaking potentially, at 35 or 40 knots, and designed to circle the globe. Nobody really knows how fast they might go. For perspective, these boats sail faster in 18 knots of wind than most oceangoing ships can power, achieving these speeds by lifting off and staying aloft, above even large waves. Whereas the first prototypes were made from nonfoiling Gen I hulls outfitted with foils to add lift to a planing hull, the Gen II designs put almost all the load into the foils themselves. They are boats built around blades, not blades added to boats. Buoyancy is but a means to an end.

To stabilize lift, the sailors adjust foil rake, among other blade controls. The goal is to minimize wave piercing, pounding, wetted surface and therefore multiply speed by perfecting pitch. This is akin to trimming sails above and below the water, so the work to find and keep the groove is complex and never ending. Moreover, a Gen II IMOCA 60 simply can’t reasonably be driven by a person for more than a few minutes. Response times are too quick and a lowly human can’t keep up like an advanced autopilot. Also, an autopilot can’t be scared. In fact, the sailing is so edgy and extreme and the motion so violent that the sailor is often relegated to a nav cockpit to keep watch of computers managing the boat. 

Jérémie Beyou, skipper of the super-foiler Charal calls it a “new era in ocean sailing,” and it’s hard to argue. In one clip from the race, a Niagara-like din is only pierced by strange mechanical pangs and bangs, and howling wind and violent spray seem otherworldly, like in the scene from the movie “Interstellar,” when Matthew McConaughey is about to enter the black hole. “Interstellar,” however, is fiction and special effects. Flying IMOCAs are the real thing.

The fleet is gearing up for the next Vendée Globe nonstop, unassisted, singlehanded race starting in November 2020 and a group of sailing friends and I are gearing up to become rabid fans. At a recent gathering, one friend had many questions: Would 30 knots become the new normal? Will computer-driven flying boats become ubiquitous? Will this trickle down? What could go wrong?

The conversation turned to the inevitability of a foil finding a partially submerged lost container in the Southern Ocean and the drum-tight boat exploding into shards on impact.

The next day, while tearing along at 25 knots in the Transat Jacques Vabre, Alex Thomson’s brand new $8 million Hugo Boss hit something hard enough to pulverize the keel and keelbox. The bulb and its blade had to be cut away and dropped to the ocean bottom. Thomson and co-skipper Neal McDonald limped to the Cape Verde Islands.

Thirty knots is indeed out of this world; something most of us never dreamed of. But now that it’s here, now that we can sail around the world faster than ships can steam, we’re going to need to add collision avoidance systems.

If we can make a sailboat fly, surely we can make it see.