Crest of a Wave
America's Cup sailing

© ACEA 2015 / Photo Ricardo Pinto

Crest of a Wave

Exciting developments in boat technology are blowing sailing’s established certainties out of the water and attracting a new generation of fans. As 2016 dawns, preparations for the following year's America's Cup are hotting up, bringing with them a host of design innovations.

THOUSANDS OF AEROPLANES lift off runways around the world each hour of every day. For more than a century, humans have been comfortable flying with the birds, but in April 2015 the sailing world experienced a collective intake of breath as the first ever cruising sailboat took flight. Taking off from the azure waters of the Caribbean on L-shaped, carbon-fibre foils, the bright orange G4 catamaran changed the way we look at recreational sailing forever.

Once set in motion, this design revolution has pitted billionaire against billionaire in the race to out-design and “out-foil” international competitors before the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda. An influx of dollars has funded the development of carbon-fibre laminate structures and stable hydrofoil shapes that have launched every type of sailboat out of the water. From sporty dinghies to luxury cruisers, designers and manufacturers are embracing a new era of sailing.

“The 2013 America’s Cup opened people’s eyes,” says Gunboat founder Peter Johnstone. “It really brought high-performance sailing to the mainstream.” The winner of 15 Continental Sailing Championships, Johnstone set up Gunboat and produced his first catamaran in 2001, when he could find nothing on the market to suit his needs. Back then, the idea of a performance cruising catamaran was in its infant stages—slow fibreglass sloops, mainly monohulls, were the norm for recreational sailing.

America’'s Cup Sailing

Sander van der Borch / ArtemisRacing

The trickle down from this quantum leap in the sport is seen in the modern small boats being mass-produced today with the latest in sailing technology. The International Moth, a 65-pound hydrofoiler for one person, and the Flying Phantom catamaran are production boats that are being used by America’s Cup teams in preparation for the main event in Bermuda. The Waszp—a simplified version of the Moth scheduled for release in 2016—is poised to compete against the Laser, a standard class of dinghy used around the world and in the Olympics. Olympians in the Nacra 17 class are already using Cup-generated techniques to get their boats foiling. The influences are even projected to make recreational cruising and day sailing faster and more comfortable in the next five years.

So what exactly does all of this rapid technological development do for the blazer-clad image of the sport? The proof is in the growing online and television viewership of burgeoning professional racing tours around the world which, like the Cup, are migrating to hydrofoiling catamarans.

Originally from Fremantle, Western Australia, 28-year-old Kinley Fowler is a member of the Cup-defending Oracle Team USA. He noticed the transformation in public interest after winning the 2013 Cup in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion and has since watched the sport’s profile developing internationally. “Interest has grown massively,” he says. “I have friends at home who’d never seen a sailing race before 2013; now it’s on the news and they can watch it on television.”

The 2015 America’s Cup World Series was contested at waterfront cities around the world and brought out even bigger crowds than the Olympics. “Our tactician won a gold medal at the London Olympics,” says Fowler, ”and he said there were three times as many spectators on the water at the World Series event in England last year than were at the Olympic regatta. We are getting a lot more fans and it’s starting to become a bit of a cooler sport.”

Sailing is enjoying a perceptible bump in attention thanks to the crash-and-burn style of racing seen in major events including the Cup and tours like the Extreme Sailing Series. Mainstream media outlets NBC Sports and ESPN have been broadcasting sailing for the first time in almost 20 years. Although interest may never reach the grand heights of golf, many observers feel if there was ever a time for sailing to attract a broader audience, it is now.

“There was really a disconnect between the highest profile events and the millennials,” says Johnstone, referring to the slow pace of the previous Cup boats and their skippers, who were generally aged 40-plus. He should know. As well as designing the G4, he comes from a family that, since the late 1970s, has produced the most popular production cruising and racing sailboats in the world, under the name J Boats. Their market, still strong and steadily growing, is dominated by middle- to upper-class sailors of a slightly older set. In Johnstone’s opinion, “today’s America’s Cup is connecting the sport back to the millennials.”

America's Cup

ACEA 2015 / Photo Gilles Martin-Raget

As in many industries, investment drives development. Perhaps the G4 could have been built before the last America’s Cup, but the costs to develop the technology would have been astronomical for any boatbuilder. The designers for Emirates Team New Zealand were searching for a silver bullet to capture the elusive Cup they’d held back in the 1990s. They found a loophole in the AC72 class rules and the end result was a hydrofoiling sailboat that travelled at 50mph. The resulting technological battle for the dramatic finals of the 2013 series sent tremors through the sailing landscape.

The featherweight G4 catamaran (at 40ft, it weighs 6,000 pounds, around one third the weight of a similar-length monohull cruiser) is a direct descendant of the AC72 and now hurtles over the waves at twice the speed of the wind. That innocuous loophole in the AC72 rule spawned not only the developments in catamaran design, but also others in monohulls with their ubiquitous lead keels. Although only one keelboat—the diminutive Quant 23 in Switzerland—has become foil-borne, the technology developed in the Cup has inspired the adventurous Vendée Globe, the solo non-stop around-the-world race.

Around the same time Johnstone’s G4 was first taking flight, five of the world’s top solo sailors were building and testing their IMOCA 60 monohull sailboats off the coast of France. Sponsored Vendée Globe boats, many of them designed by French-based international naval architects VPLP—the racing designers du jour—now sport horizontal foils with turned-up tips extending outwards from the side of the boat. Frenchman Morgan Lagravière’s boat Safran has spawned the foils’ nickname of “Dali moustaches,” based on their head-on appearance.

Early tests of the aggressive “blades”, as they are also referred to, have shown dramatic increases in performance. Footage of open ocean testing shows Safran and other IMOCA boats heeled over at frightening angles, shattering waves into plums of sea mist. The key observation in these trials was not the whitewater scene but the consistent lifting of two-thirds of the hull of the boat. Today’s Vendée Globe boats with swinging lead keels appear to be airborne more often than not.

Naval architects in the Vendée Globe realm predict an improvement in around-the-world time of 10-15%. With the current Vendée Globe record of 78 days set in the 2012-13 race by François Gabart, this difference could take off several days—potentially the biggest advance in the history of the race.

The ever-wider, hard-edged hull shapes of the IMOCA boats have influenced cruising monohulls as well. Carbon-fibre laminate technology has been transferred to forms of fibreglass, and now similar boxy shapes are allowing for more interior space and greater stability in cruisers. This translates into bigger staterooms, less heeling and less spilling of cocktails.

At the 2015 Genoa Boat Show—one of the world’s largest—row upon row of floating “”condominiums”” boasted spacious salons, with full kitchens and as many as four staterooms, beneath wide decks on boats just 40ft in length. Contemporary builders, such as Germany’s Hanse, have led the larger Beneteau and Grand Soleil companies in adopting this trend.

Observers believe it is only a matter of time before the “Dali moustaches” show up on boats at the Genoa show. But there are limits. “These developments are wonderful things,” says Lorenzo Argento of Brenta Design, who was displaying his latest creation, the teak-decked Brenta 80 DC, in Genoa. “But those appendages have an impact on the interior solutions in cruising boats.”

Racing boats

Argento was one of the early adaptors of carbon-fibre construction in luxury cruising boats. The first of the Wally Yachts he helped to design in the early 2000s adapted technology from the monohull Cup boats. Today, light and fast cruising boats can trace their lineage back to the first Wallys. Though he is a big fan of the performance leaps shown in today’s racing boats, he does not see hydrofoils or Dali foils being developed for many cruisers in the near future. “A lot of our design philosophy has to do with the pleasure of sailing the boat,” he says, adding “which is as important as the ultimate performance of the boat.”

And there are legitimate concerns regarding the dangers of crashing the latest hot-rods of the sea. There are consequences when something goes wrong when sailing at 40mph. As one observer at a recent America’s Cup World Series said, “things go bad in a hurry, and people get hurt.”

The week after Johnstone’s G4 took off like an arrow released from a compound bow, the boat capsized, the mast smacked the water and crew were sent diving into the water. Lagravière’s Safran and a sistership IMOCA withdrew from the recent 5,000-mile Transat Jacques Vabre when their heavily-loaded foils began to crack open the carbon hull.

Does Johnstone still feel the 2017 America’s Cup will influence the popularity of the sport and the types of boats people sail? “The foil technology in the next 10 years is going to make sailing faster and more stable for everyone,” he says. “It’s definitely more exciting to watch. Now we have a foiling cruising catamaran, a foiling keelboat and it’s going to change the around the world race. The rate of change is breathtaking.”

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by Chris Museler