Fast Passages?

Francis Herreshoff once said that the pleasure of sailing is directly proportional to the speed attained, and even for a dyed-in-the-wool voyager, his view includes a large measure of truth. Of course, the gut-level exhilaration that comes with raw speed is only part of the story. There’s also great satisfaction to be gained from eating up the miles with the boat moving effortlessly at peak efficiency. Conversely, it’s not fun at all to struggle upwind in the teeth of a gale, praying that nothing critical is about to break.

In a nutshell, good sailing for most sailors means fast sailing under brisk, yet not extreme, conditions.

In this, the age of electronics, many offshore sailors are privy to a wealth of marine weather data, including detailed, largely accurate forecasts. In principle, the door has opened to a futuristic world where sailors can routinely dodge storms while selecting tracks that ensure fast, comfortable passages. Many ocean racers are using weather routing very successfully, despite being limited to specific courses and departure times. Given the added flexibility of a voyaging itinerary, one might imagine that today’s voyagers could do at least as well; but in reality, most end up simply battening down and accepting the weather as it comes.

The difference simply boils down to boat speed. The fact remains that detailed weather forecasts and sophisticated routing protocols are of limited use beyond selecting an appropriate departure window for a major passage, unless the long-distance voyaging boat has sufficient speed to take advantage of available information. Most keelboats in the popular 35- to 45-foot bracket will rarely average better than 5 or 6 knots during prolonged passages — not much better than what seagoing yachts were achieving before World War II.

So as weather-routing capabilities continue to improve, what is sorely needed is a major improvement in average voyaging speeds, ideally up to the 8- to 10-knot range that’s now commonplace in ocean racing. A boat that can lope along at 200 nm per day without taxing its crew will open a vastly wider range of routing options, including the ability to avoid a great deal of the worst weather. And unlike the slow boat, which tends to be rapidly overhauled and passed by weather systems, a fast one can often enjoy favorable winds for prolonged periods, gaining additional ground beyond what its speed edge alone might suggest.

Beyond conventional solutions

Given that cruising speeds have increased only marginally over the past century, what are the realistic chances of a “quantum leap” of the sort required for truly effective weather routing? Modern ocean racers have achieved the requisite levels of performance through a variety of technical approaches, but are any of these realistic possibilities for the voyaging sailor of only average skills and means?

What probably won’t work are efforts to boost the performance of conventional multihulls or ballasted monohulls in the under-50-foot size range. Admittedly, there are plenty of race-oriented multihulls and a few smaller monohulls, like the Open 40s, which can perform at the desired level, but their accommodations and carrying capacities are hopelessly inadequate to satisfy most voyaging sailors.

In sizes greater than 40 feet, there are excellent performance cruising catamarans with the pace to reel off 200-plus miles a day. Big cats also offer other advantages, including generous deck/cockpit space, a level ride, and in most cases, shallow draft. The downside is that a lightweight cruising cat of 40 feet or so will inevitably be expensive — typically more than a comparably equipped, 55-foot keelboat. Big sails and high gear loads make short-handing strenuous and potentially problematic. Although the average size of voyaging boats has crept upward over the years, a fast catamaran that is large enough to make a viable long-range voyager is simply more boat than many sailors can handle, afford or maintain comfortably.

Seeking better speed simply by building a longer boat is another approach that, although popular, is unlikely to achieve the performance improvements needed for effective weather routing.

Since the 1970s, West Coast sailors have, in effect, been stretching conventionally proportioned designs to create “ultralight sleds,” and the resulting boats 50 feet upward often qualify as very quick, competent voyaging boats. One sled from 1980s — the MacGregor 68 — was even relatively inexpensive thanks to its narrow 12-foot beam and low-tech construction, but that was a rare exception. By and large, these are big yachts with large, powerful rigs and pricetags to match. The same applies to Steve Dashew’s innovative line of Deerfoot and Sundeer cruisers — outstanding high-speed voyagers, but only for those prepared to take on a vessel in the 50- to 70-foot range.

Canting keels gain ground

Even with ballast ratios in the 50 percent range, the archetypal West Coast sled is a relatively tender boat due to narrow beam and limited form stability. By contrast, the Open Class monohulls — developed primarily in Europe — have evolved as wide, flat-bottomed skimming dishes thanks to the type-forming influence of a rule that allows virtually unlimited sail area while restricting the static heel angle induced by moveable ballast to 10° per side. Although both types tend to be extremely fast off the wind, neither is impressive when close-hauled. The sleds heel over and plod, while the wide Open Class boats tend to pound excessively.

Canting keels have appeared on a number of experimental craft since the 1960s, and in recent years, have largely supplanted lateral water ballasting as the norm in the Open 60s. But from the voyaging sailor’s perspective, it’s the still-rare combination of canting ballast and a slim, easily propelled hull that appears to hold the greatest promise.

Until very recently, the legacy of the 10° rule has precluded this line of development within racing circles — supposedly for safety reasons. This is ironic, because a narrow boat can readily be designed with superior high-angle stability and self-righting characteristics, even when fitted with a canting-keel system that generates static heel in the 30° to 35° range. Generally speaking, a narrow, round-bottom sailboat becomes a different animal when equipped with canting ballast, because its inherently low form stability ceases to matter. On the other hand, it still retains the advantages of low wetted surface and low wave-making resistance, giving it the potential to achieve exceptional speeds with just a modest rig.

Some intriguing developments along these lines have been spearheaded by DynaYacht, a small California firm that has developed unique Canting Ballast, Twin Foil (CBTF) technology. The Nov./Dec. 1999 issue of Ocean Navigator carried a detailed report on a 40-foot prototype CBTF raceboat called Red Hornet. Since then, the 40-foot version has gone into production as the Schock 40, and a handful of these boats have been launched at a cost of about $250,000 each. Just 10 feet wide, this 40 is more of a sportboat than a long-distance sailing machine, There have been some impressive race results, but also some quality-control issues.

On the other hand, a newly minted CBTF 60-footer named Wild Oats has lately made a major impact on the Australian racing scene. Wild Oats is the first CBTF boat from the red-hot design team of John Reichel and Jim Pugh, who have lately joined forces with DynaYacht to advance this technology. The boat is a state-of-the-art racer displacing about 19,000 lbs, and it currently races under the IRC (International Rule Class) rule (although, naturally, there has been some controversy because its static heel parameters fall well outside the 10° rule). In its first outing, Wild Oats handily won the big-boat class at Hamilton Island Race Week, keeping company with several 80-footers and sometimes beating them boat for boat. In January, it set a new course record for Pitt-Coffs — Australia’s most popular ocean race — taking another class win, as well as line honors.

Over the past decade, canting-keel raceboats have sailed hundreds of thousands of ocean miles, and a few — Wild Oats included — have experienced problems with the mechanisms used to swing the fin. An Open 50 and a 21-foot Mini have been lost as a result of swing-keel failures, but such severe consequences have been very rare. Most cant-keel systems have two hydraulic rams, each capable of swinging the fin independently, as well as a mechanism for locking the foil amidships, so the boat can be sailed like a conventional keeler if things go wrong.

The newly minted maxZ86 class rule ( is allowing canting ballast, although the first of the genre, Zephyrus V, is sailing with a fixed bulb keel and water ballasting. Line honors winner of last summer’s Pacific Cup, this Reichel/Pugh design is probably the world’s fastest sled (at least for now). For the 2005 TransPac, there could be as many as five of these spectacular super-sleds sporting a variety of moveable ballast configurations. As well, the Reichel/Pugh office (which currently seems to have the inside edge on the sexiest big-boat projects) has outfitted Baltic Yachts’ new Super 78 with a canting keel. Although this technology doesn’t yet qualify as mainstream, that designation no longer seems a long way off.

A longer time frame for hydrofoils

The idea of using small foils to fly in water has been around since the first days of heavier-than-air flight. Alexander Graham-Bell, besides inventing the telephone, developed a powered hydrofoil that achieved 70 mph back in 1919. The first successful sailing hydrofoil was probably Gordon Baker’s 26-foot Monitor, launched in 1955. Since then, quite a few dedicated inventors have devoted their best efforts to this fascinating concept, but for nearly 50 years, the progress has been somewhat erratic.

One early high point was Williwaw, a 30-foot plywood trimaran designed and built by the late David Keiper in 1966. Equipped with four retractable ladder foils, this modest 2,000-lb boat sometimes exceeded 20 knots on a beam reach and proved seaworthy enough to circumnavigate the Pacific, albeit only periodically foil-borne.

More recently, several high-profile attempts to develop seagoing hydrofoil racers have fallen well short of expectations and no doubt dampened enthusiasm for the budding technology. In 1978, famed French single-hander Eric Tabarly launched Paul Ricard, the first attempt at a large, foil-stabilized trimaran. Unfortunately, its overweight aluminum construction made it impossible determine the true potential of the concept. In the mid-1990s, a French consortium spearheaded by Dassault Aviation revisited the idea with l’Hydroptère, a space-age 60-footer that has huge, inclined foils that hinge down from the tips of a 78-foot crossbeam to provide the desired combination of lift and side force. Intended to break trans-oceanic records, l’Hydroptère has instead suffered repeated breakdowns and has yet to establish any notable speed marks.

On the other hand, the past 15 years have brought some significant successes in inshore hydrofoil sailing, bringing hope that comparable offshore developments may be just over the horizon. To break the ice, the Hobie TriFoiler, developed by Greg Ketterman, performed impressively and achieved some modest commercial success as an exciting, high-speed beach boat. More recently, the TriFoiler has been largely upstaged by the WindRider Rave, an inexpensive ($10,000) 16-foot trimaran utilizing a refined hydrofoil system developed for many years by Dr. Sam Bradfield. The floats and the main hull of the Rave are roto-molded polyethylene, but their flexibility doesn’t matter, because this little machine can be foil-borne in winds as light as 12 knots. A steerable, inverted T-foil at the stern also controls the pitch angle of the boat as a whole, thus adjusting the angle of attack of the main foils and the amount of lift they generate. These are also inverted T-foils made of extruded aluminum. For beaching, they retract into slots in the amas, much like ordinary daggerboards.

The heart of Bradfield’s foil control system is an ingenious surface-sensing mechanism that adjusts trailing edge flaps on the horizontal elements of each of the main foils. Each time the windward float starts to rise due to increasing heeling forces from the rig, the control linkage angles the flap upward, switching the windward foil from a lifting mode to a down-force condition. As a result, the Rave barely heels in strong gusts, yet it accelerates like a dragster.

It seems conceivable that this sort of active foil stabilization could be developed to work satisfactorily on a self-righting offshore vessel that operates in the highly desirable 10-knot range with its elongated hull still supported primarily by buoyancy.

In principle, a fully foil-borne craft promises the smoothest possible ride in rough water, provided the waves are not too big and the vehicle is capable of maintaining a relatively constant “altitude” as it slices through them. Obviously this would be a lot to expect of a 35-footer confronting confused 10- to 15-foot seas.

All the same, it may someday become feasible to accomplish this feat using “fly-by-wire” control systems comparable to sophisticated autopilots but capable of rapidly controlling the attitude of the foiler in all three dimensions. For now it seems, getting something like this to work and do so reliably would doubtless require an R&D effort too rich for today’s sailing industry.

In the meantime, however, those who favor Occam’s razor and the simplest possible solutions can be heartened by some promising hydrofoil sailing developments out of Australia. Mark Pivac of the By Design Group in Perth has produced several foil systems that achieve excellent lift/side force characteristics and built-in attitude without moving parts. The first Piv foils were fitted to a diminutive Moth-class skiff, where they promptly caused a sensation at the 1999 World Championship.

Even without foils, the International Moth — a radical, developmental 12-footer — is among the quickest dinghies in the world, often keeping pace with fast beach cats. The addition of inward-canting Piv foils on the ends of the hiking racks and a T-foil rudder was clearly another major speed breakthrough for this progressive class (although the first foiler Moth capsized a few times too often to win the Worlds).

Proceeding to bigger things, Pivac and Peter Eagles built a 40-foot catamaran foiler designed for coastal racing in the often-challenging Australian waters. Launched in late 2001, the prototype Spitfire has encountered a few growing pains but at times has performed impressively. And while we’re still a long way from seeing hydrofoils on mainstream voyaging boats, the progress being made clearly deserves some attention.

Contributing Editor Sven Donaldson is a freelance marine writer and former sailmaker who is based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

By Ocean Navigator