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Speed Sailing Overview

Speed on the water—it heightens your senses and eventually invades your sensibilities.
Picture yourself on the rail of a boat—almost any boat—it really doesn’t matter. It’s windy and you’ve got just enough sail up to be pushing the envelope, but you’re in control as the boat chomps at the bit, straining to break free of its displacement mode and burn over instead of through the water. Your senses are heightened as the spray flies off the hull and the boat continues blasting along. Whether you realize it or not, you’re in the grips of a powerful dynamic, you’re becoming a slave to speed.

Speed. It’s one of the most compelling aspects of this sport we all enjoy. Of course it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but even the most entrenched cruising fanatic has a hard time suppressing that latent rebel yell when his or her vessel meets the right combination of wind and wave to redline the speed gauge, if only in relative fashion. As for the rest of us—those of us who do put a premium value on moving fast across the water—the pursuit of speed is an all-encompassing venture, often prompting us to sacrifice comfort and occasionally judgement for an additional tenth or two of a knot. But you needn’t worry if you begin to realize that this last sentence describes you and your mates—that doesn’t make any of you extremists. Actually, that description puts you roughly in the middle of the scale when it comes to speed fanaticism because there’s an entire subculture of speed-seeking out there, and its devotees are the ones who truly exist on the edge. Here’s a quick overview:

Lindsay Cunningham's latest speed machine—Macquarie Innovations—making a systematic assault on the 50-knot barrier.
Any discussion of speed sailing—particularly one involving records—starts and ends with the wizard, Lindsay Cunningham, the wizard of Aus. The man who is reluctantly known by that moniker is a legend in speed sailing circles due to his successes with fixed-wing craft. Cunningham, now in his late 60s, is the designer and engineer of Yellow Pages Endeavour, the innovative fixed-wing, tripod craft that set the outright speed record of 46.52 knots in 1993, a record that remains unequalled today. Prior to that he worked on a number of breakthrough vessels, and now it appears that he’s back at it, working in secrecy on a new project titled Macquarie Innovations.

Macquarie Innovations is reportedly closer in essence to Extreme 50, which was named for the holy grail in this discipline of the sport—achieving 50 knots under sail. That red vessel, itself an evolution of the famed YPE, has led to the new vessel, which is purported to have a shorter, lower-aspect ratio wing than the yellow boat and a longer and wider base for its tripod floats. Cunningham and his team indicated roughly five years ago that Extreme 50 was capable of improving on YPE’s performance by 14 percent—a number that they maintain is also true of the newest boat. Back then, the red boat was clocked at 43.35 knots in winds that measured 18 to 20 knots. So far, performance data and photographs of Cunningham’s latest venture are exceedingly hard to come by, which is just the way the wizard likes it.

The flying Frenchmen aboard Vecteur Vitesse claim a top speed of 42.12 knots.
Elsewhere around the world, Cunningham and his accomplishments remain under near-constant assault. In June of ’97, the French sailors and designers at Techniques Avancees announced that they attained 42.12 knots aboard their novel, twin-wing catamaran Vecteur Vitesse, establishing a new Class-D record for outright speed. It appears that the gears have ground to a temporary halt on this project for the time being, but another effort, also based in France, has announced that it too has developed the technology to surpass 50 knots under sail. Calling itself Innovoile, this project’s vessel is best described as a proa with two tilted, solid-wing sails that join each other at the tip. If this concept seems difficult to envision, then you know how difficult it is to describe. In deference to the designers, it’s best that you see it for yourself on the project’s website (www.mko.freesurf.fr/innovoile/inno_e.php.)

Just a little to the north there are several British-based speed efforts that bear mention, particularly Bootiful, Andy Green and Tim Marriot’s answer to Cunningham’s dominance, and Sailrocket, the name that naval architect Malcolm Barnsley has given to his quest for speed supremacy. Green and Marriot’s project has been in the offing for over six years. It is, in essence, a length-equals-speed approach to the record as the designers have created a 60-foot, soft-sailed vessel that at first glance doesn’t look so radical. However, the genius behind this boat is that it uses windsurfing technology for steering. Instead of rudders, which the designers feel would introduce unnecessary drag, Bootiful has a mobile rig that can be moved forward or aft to adjust the heading of the vessel.

The seemingly normal Bootiful is a twin-hulled, 60-foot speedster with windsurfer-like steering.
The following passage excerpted from the project’s website explains the concept: "Her two flat bottomed hulls will skim the surface of the water like windsurf boards while another radical aspect of the design is the absence of rudders. The aim is to cut as much weight and water resistance as possible, so Simon and his two crew will steer by moving the mast and sail sited on a X-shaped crossbeam, backwards and forwards along the two hulls. This will be done using pedal power." (For additional information see the details at www.ussc.co.uk/.)

While Green and Marriot continue to experiment with their vessel, Barnsley and his Sailrocket cohorts have built a one-fifth-scale model of their single-tack craft and tested it, most recently attaining 16 knots of speed in 13 knots of wind. Barnsley, who reveals that his concept is based upon Bernard Smith’s elegantly simple design work laid out in the circa-‘60s book "The 40-knot Sailboat," claims that Sailrocket’s performance computations indicate a potential for 53 knots of speed in 22-knot winds.

In contrast to YPE, plans call for the rig on Sailrocket to be made of a more conventional soft sail that will be inclined to weather. Barnsley realizes that both these choices limit the rig’s efficiency in comparison, but he maintains that his vessel will be almost 150 pounds lighter than Cunningham’s, which he says should compensate for the performance loss. He also expects that the inclined rig will create lift, effectively carrying up to 40 percent of the 30-foot vessel’s weight. (For additional information and pictures on this project, log on to the Sailrocket website at www.sailrocket.fsnet.co.uk/.)

Of course there are numerous other speed seeking syndicates out there, each following their own path toward achieving blazing speed across the water. Someone, somewhere, will eventually harness the wind sufficiently well to exceed 50 knots. It will be a remarkable accomplishment, not only on its on merits, but also because it will give the rest of us touched by speed demons a little comfort. The next time your fellow sailors or crew accuse you of putting too much emphasis on boat speed, let ‘em know where you stand. In the world of speed-seeking fanatics, you’re barely under the influence.

Setting The Record Straight

Official records in the world of speed sailing are broken down into classes by virtue of sail area. Simon McKeon and Tim Daddo set the outright speed record in October of 1993 aboard the famed Yellow Pages Endeavour in Sandy Point, Australia—46.52 knots—when the boat was configured as a C-Class vessel. The other existing records include:


10 square Meter ClassThierry Bielak45.34 knots
10 square Meter Class (women)Babethe Coquelle40.05 knots
A-Class (10-14 square meters)Russell Long, Long Shot43.55 knots
A-Class (women)Caroline Ducato17.81 knots
B-Class (14-22 square meters)Simon McKeon, YPE44.65 knots
C-Class (22-28 square meters)Simon McKeon, YPE46.52 knots
C-Class (women) Jean Daddo17.38 knots
D-Class (over 28 square meters)


Vecteur Vitesse

42.12 knots

On land, the current speed-sailing record—116.7 mph—is held by Bob Schumacher and Bob Dill aboard Iron Duck, a 39-foot, fixed-wing, slewed landsailer. The record on ice allegedly stands at 145 mph, though that remains unconfirmed.

Suggested Reading:

Vendee Globe Speed Machines by Brian Hancock

Iceboating 101—the Need for Speed by Bruce Caldwell

Sizing up the Competition for The Race by Pete Melvin

Buying Guide: Spinnaker Poles

Dan Dickison is offline  
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