World's Fastest Sailboat: Quantum Leap
World's Fastest Sailboat: Quantum Leap
Tech Review: How did Paul Larsen's Vestas Sailrocket 2 peg 64 knots? James Boyd explores the turbulent path to the recent record blitz.
Last November, in southwest Africa, a landmark moment occurred in the history of sailing when Paul Larsen pegged the outright world sailing speed record. In recent years the record was eclipsed in small increments, usually a fraction of a knot, but the Australian’s innovative Vestas SailRocket 2 flew down the 500-meter course at an average speed just over 75 mph, almost 10 knots faster than the previous record held by American kiteboarder Rob Douglas.
Tim Colman’s asymmetric Crossbow established the first 500-meter record in 1972 with a heady 26.3 knots. Windsurfers took hold of the record in 1986 and held it until 1993 when Simon McKeon’s asymmetric yacht Yellow Pages took it and held it until 2004. Windsurfers reigned again for a few years, but it was the kiteboarders who shattered the mythical 50-knot barrier in 2008. In 2009 Alain Thebault’s foiler L’Hydroptère managed 51.36 knots. But the kiteboarders quickly won it back when Douglas pushed the record to 55.65 knots.
With the latest record Larsen not only reclaimed it on behalf of “the boats,” but set a benchmark—65.45 knots to be precise—that will be hard to surpass.
Despite the stunning margin of increase, the record did not come easily. The feat was the culmination of 10 years of hard graft, fiscal uncertainty, and severe setbacks.
The Australian-born Larsen had been best known in the sailing world for his offshore adventures. He crewed on Pete Goss’s ill-fated Team Philips, then ended up sailing around the world in The Race with Tony Bullimore. He completed another lap aboard Doha 2006, winner of the Oryx Quest.
In 2002, he and his Swedish girlfriend, Helena Darvelid, herself an accomplished offshore sailor, teamed up with English naval architect and speed sailing junkie Malcolm Barnsley.
The catalyst for the SailRocket project was the book The 40-knot Sailboat written in 1963 by American rocket scientist and yacht design visionary Bernard Smith. At a time when yachts still had long keels, Smith described the idea of a sailing vessel dubbed the “aero-hydrofoil” with neutral stability: where the heeling moment from the rig is completely offset by a foil located to windward. Smith built models to prove his concept, but it was only when the first Vestas SailRocket was launched in the spring of 2004 that his concept was proven at full scale.
Initial progress was slow. In 2005, after two seasons getting to know the platform, they replaced its softsail rig with a wing. The first trials with the boat were on Portland Harbour, close to Larsen and Darvelid’s home in Weymouth, Great Britain. In 2007, the duo decamped to Walvis Bay, Namibia, a venue with perfect characteristics that offered more opportunity to carry out runs: a gently sloping beach, regular winds, and a 1,000-meter stretch of obstruction-free water. In recent years, Namibia has taken over from The French Trench in Saintes Maries de la Mer, France, as the preferred location for breaking sailing speed records. All the speed records set by kiteboarders were done in Luderitz, Namibia, some 250 miles south of Walvis Bay.
The first big speeds came in 2007, with SailRocket hitting an instantaneous speed of 42.4 knots during one run. It was well short of the record at the time, but fast enough to prove Smith’s concept. That number also enabled Larsen and Darvelid to gain vital sponsorship from wind turbine manufacturer Vestas.
With such a groundbreaking boat, teething problems were inevitable. They were getting faster, but the boat, rather than the pilot, was still mostly in control. A significant issue was the steering. “The back of the boat looked like Edward Scissorhands,” says Larsen. “We had three rudders hanging off the back; one system was confusing the other. It was a mess.”
After nearly destroying the boat in a crash, Larsen and Darvelid, along with Barnsley and engineer George Dadd, set out to create a better steering system. With this fitted, and Vestas SailRocket rebuilt, they set off again, as Larsen says “on one of the wildest runs I’ve ever had in that boat.” The steering was better—the boat would bear away to some degree—but far from perfect. On one run, Vestas SailRocket ran onto the beach at 35 knots.
But despite the troubles controlling the boat, Larsen knew they were on the right track. After tweaking the rudder over the next few days, they did one run, in big winds and relatively rough conditions, where Larsen felt for the first time that he was in control of the beast. It was a landmark moment.
“After that run, we booked the WSSRC for the first time,” he says, referring to the World Speed Sailing Record Council, which administers and validates all sailing speed records.
While the boat continued to get faster, a more fundamental design issue became apparent. With the pilot’s seat in the rear of the main hull, trying to keep the boat pointed in the right direction was a challenge. It was, Larsen describes, “like trying to fly an arrow backwards. It would try to turn around and fly the proper way with the weight at the front and the feathers at the back, by turning laterally into the wind, or vertically if it had to.”