The hunkered-down factor has likely made following the adventures of the two most demanding sailing races on the planet a welcome break over the holidays and into the New Year. I speak of course of the America’s Cup (preliminary challenger regatta) and the Vendée Globe.

In a curious touch of Serendipity, the Vendée Globe’s fleet, with some eighteen foil-equipped, fire-breathing 60-footers was transiting the Southern Ocean, solo, south of New Zealand, just after the AC boats had done their foiling thing around Waitemata harbor. Neither class is new to foils, or rather, races. The IMOCA 60s have been foiling for a while yet the AC75s have only been a class for the last twenty minutes or so, but the previous two events, held in cats of course, had foil-borne hulls.

The juxtaposition of these two classes of boats is further interesting to me in that both are elite, leading-edge events absorbing the best minds in the sailing game, and now pretty regularly designers and engineers outside the sailing universe. Both events have had their moments: Sir Ben Ainslie’s drawer full of Olympic medals is not much help when the boat is, er, well, uncompetitive, ‘though that seems not to be a problem now, apparently vanishing in the wake of Team INEOS. The Kiwis appear to be the boat to beat, no surprise, the Italians have great graphics (and a mouthful of a name) and American Magic seems to be faster and deeper downwind…in early January.

Just several hundred miles south of the Astro Surf, out in the grey wastes of the Southern Ocean far removed from warm showers after sailing, cheering human spectators and 50-knot RIBS, the Vendée Globe offered up a(nother) rescue at sea by competitors in the vicinity. On this occasion the waterlogged skipper was Kevin Escoffier, master of PRB. The issues surrounding his very sudden abandon ship have all manner of lessons to be learned. There is a deeper irony in his being rescued as he was by Jean Le Cam having to do with the PRB team rescuing him, King Jean, about fifteen years ago.

Social media had many posters venting on the seaworthiness, or really the lack of same, of the Vendée Globe foilers prior to the start. The obvious issue was hitting something with the foil while sailing at speed, and subsequent attendant problems. As of this writing, (12 January) seven boats have retired. This is actually a pretty light attrition rate for this race, and only one retirement was directly due to foil damage.

The boat with the broken foil was going a mere fraction of the AC boats’ speed, at just 17 knots. One lost a rig. Alex Thompson broke his boat, then the rudder. The indomitable Sam Davies hit something at 20 knots that damaged the keel and related canting mechanism and structure inside the boat. True to form, she retired and hauled into Cape Town, the guys came down and fixed the boat and Sam is underway, completing the circumnavigation but not as a competitor. One guy retired when the computers (both of them) gave up the ghost. That is a first, I think. And the most recent is another damaged keel articulation mechanism and related structure.

Meanwhile the lead group of say ten, focusing on the immediate six or seven are all moving in a cluster, with frequent close encounters. Of all the things one would not expect to need in the Southern Ocean is knowledge of the RRS, part 2. This evening, the lead nine are in a cluster with 200 miles between first and ninth. Pretty tight racing for a 30,000-mile race.

The only social media I use is Facebook, and one of the groups is of course an AC 2021 group. Reading the comments on this group, one would expect boats presently hauled out to be slowing growing foils as the sun travels slowly back to us. The opinion that foils are coming is pretty strong. The gyrations of the crews and the apparent almost completely computer-informed operation of the boats brings to more than a few the sense, “Is this really sailing?” With all the computerization of the boats, I wondered, could you do this as a radio-controlled yacht? Sailing it from a control room, in say Nevada? Alas, the rules, all 72 pages of them, do require eleven crew, all of whom “shall be humans.”(I am not kiddin’). Some rule maker was obviously thinking on the RC idea, I guess.

Innovation, it is said, leads to trickle-down to the activities and equipment of the average bear and so the foiling AC75s are offered up, by some, as the wave of the future. The foiling part, that is. I am not sure I agree with that. Certainly, there are foiling boats around. I have seen foils on Gunboat cats and Moths, of course. There is “out there” a designer’s proposal for a 100-meter Cat with foils…The new Figaro Three has ‘em and there is a variety of small, mass produced trimarans. And I have seen foiling Optis and Lasers (well pictures) and they did not looked Photoshopped. One fellow even posted a picture of a new 150-foot Baltic with what are actually DSS (Dynamic Stability System) boards. This is roughly a set up with what amounts to centerboards that poke out of the side of the boat and create resistance to heel.

And just for chuckles, the Structures yard in France has developed a Series (production) version of a Pogo 3 Mini Transat 650 with foils that get the boat OUT of the water like the AC boats. On the other hand…

I am still wondering where the wing keels from 1983 went. A few production boats toyed with the idea but likely it was too much money versus what could be achieved in other ways. Viz shallow draft without losing stability. Thinking hard about the ACC boats, the 1990-2003 or so vintage 75-foot monohulls don’t really offer anything that is now common on production boats. Wing sails, circa 2013 and 2017? Nope, and we end up back at foils.

Wikipedia reports that hydrofoils have been around, at least on paper, since 1869. And in 1909 a Brit named John Thorneycroft built a 22-foot test boat and ran it on foils at 35 knots. And there is the French flying tri, Hydroptère, that has been around since the mid-1980s. And it has sailed out to Hawaii. I think I can remember a French tri in one of the OSTARs that had foils. I reckon if foils were going to take the sailing world by storm, like wing keels, someone would have done it by now. So now dear reader, where does this leave us with the matter of “trickle-down” to the likes of you and me?

Oh, I just remembered, I have actually sailed on a foiling boat, a purpose-built 20-foot cat under the livery of Red Bull set up for the Youth America’s Cup before the Bermuda event. Lifting onto the foils was actually almost a non-event. The boats were all carbon and, at “displacement” speeds, made a racket like a Ginger Baker drum solo. But once on the foils, which was not like the leap to hyper-space Chewy, the boat became stable, quiet and the view got a bit better. But the loads on the sails went up a LOT. My body shivers when I write about this experience.

I guess if you like cruising at high speed, you already have a multihull. But out in the ocean, high speed is not necessarily a great thing if you want to arrive somewhere and not feel like you need two weeks’ vacation at a spa in Switzerland. I once was the master of a 65-foot high-speed cruising boat. It was dead easy to sail at 10-12 knots. Though at speed, we hit 20 knots a couple of times and 15-17 plus was pretty normal, the motion was not all pleasant. Express subway with a maniac driver, more like.

As far as I can tell, almost all the innovations that have made their way into the boats we sail come from the open solo offshore classes. Water ballast: the above-mentioned cruising boat used water ballast tanks to house the fresh water, pumped side to side or kept even as the inclination took you. Full-length battens, or more accurately, the track and car systems to make them work properly. Bow sprits, all manner of lightweight, light air specialty sails, and really good autopilots. For my money, it is this latter development that by itself would overshadow anything from the America’s Cup with respect to making life easier on our own boats down here on the regular beach.

If you had your choice to have a boat with foils or a really good autopilot that could steer to true wind angles and speed, which would you rather have? Yeah, me too. ■

Bon Courage.

Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog,, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.

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