Innovation Shoutout: Solent Whisper
Foiling. It’s not the future. It’s now. Once the International Moths went airborne, there was no turning back, and now that a half-dozen catamaran classes have achieved flight status, we can expect to see more as the state of two-hull sailing evolves with lighter platforms, efficient foils and easier flight controls. These are the early days, however, and the barriers to entry continue to be cost, complexity and skill. From the supersize awesomeness of the million-dollar Gunboat G4 to the $36,000 Carbon Nacra F20 FCS, foiling cat sailing still doesn’t come cheap or easy.
The 17-foot Whisper catamaran aims to surmount these barriers with an entry-level, anyone-can-do-it foiling package. It’s strictly one-design, highly plug-and-play, and, as the judges discovered during their test sails, it makes it possible to foil within minutes.
Ron Price, a 49er sailor and naval architecture professor at England’s Southampton Solent University, designed the Whisper, while White Formula UK builds it. The design was Price’s pet project, which turned into a full-on production boat meant to “introduce foiling technology and experience to mainstream sailors.”
With a carbon-infused epoxy construction, the builders have managed to get the boat’s all-up weight to 171 pounds. The rig package and all the custom parts, of which there are many, are built in-house to maintain tight control over critical weight tolerances. To achieve such a lightweight platform, says builder Ron White, there are no beams, unlike what you would find on traditional beach cats. The entire boat is a two-piece build (using top and bottom molds), resulting in a stiff and light package. Underneath the boat is an array of wires that absorb rig loads and eliminate the need for bulkheads. The boat has to be stiff to prevent foils from doing different things at once.
“The craftsmanship is incredible,” said Rich. “There’s a lot of ingenuity that went into this thing to make it work. The execution of the whole thing is great. Everything worked fine. Without a doubt, it’s the most innovative of the boats we sailed.”
While the recommended combined crew weight is 300 to 400 pounds, the judges were able to get on the foils despite being over-target and sailing in extremely light air. The Whisper gets its stability from having all four of its foils (the rudders are T-foils as well) down while sailing. A wandlike control, similar to that used on a Moth, automatically controls ride height, which can be pre-set. The required technique when on the foils is to balance the boat with fore-and-aft weight, rather than using another system to make foil-rake adjustments.
“Once we were off the beach and the foils were down, it felt good and stiff,” said Stewart. “Everything worked really well and was really fun to sail. Even when we weren’t foiling, it still felt like a light catamaran. I think they’ve nailed it as an entry boat into foiling cats. It moves the needle for sure. You don’t have to be perfect to get it going.”
The lighter of the judges, Allen was riding high within minutes of stepping on the boat for the first time. “I was able to do it with ease,” he said. “No doubt it requires some agility, and it’s going to be a handful in big breeze, so that’s the downside. The wind range for foiling is pretty narrow — you won’t be out in 25 knots — but oh man, this is an innovative boat.”
While the Whisper achieves its stated goal of introducing foiling to more sailors, the $36,000 price tag (without a trailer) and numerous critical custom parts gave the judges pause. At that price — clearly, the price of innovation — it’s likely going to take a while to have one-design class racing, which preserves the Whisper as a niche boat — albeit one that’s extremely cool.