Eyes on Namibia

On Walvis Bay, Namibia, Paul Larsen and his SailRocket team are trying to take the outright speed record from kiteboarder Rob Douglas.

It's true that Vestas SailRocket is one of the odder looking "sailboats" you'll ever see. And you wouldn't exactly enter it in the Fastnet Race. But in the excellent and ongoing battle for bragging rights over the outright sailing speed record that has been waged over the past few decades by windsurfers, kiteboarders, and sailboaters, SailRocket is firmly in the sailing category.


Regardless of which camp you are partial to—and this is a debate that's always best staged in a bar, preferably at Happy Hour—the outright speed record over 500 meters has been one of the most exciting and suspenseful showdowns over the years. Back in the day, you had the Crossbow catamarans pushing speeds into the 30s (seems so slow, doesn't it), and by 1980 the record was at 36. Then the windsurfers took ownership of the record in 1986, and—except for a ten-year intervention by "sailboat" Yellow Pages Endeavour—by 2008 had pushed the record to 49.09 knots, just shy of the epic 50-knot barrier. Deep in my heart, I root for the sailboats. But I have to admit, the sight of Finian Maynard rocketing down the French Trench in 2005 was pretty awe-inspiring.

Lots of people thought it was over for the sailboaters at that point. Particularly because the kiteboarders finally figured out their technology and from 2008 started to flat-out dominate, skimming through the 50-knot barrier on a custom speed trench in Luderitz Namibia that was so shallow you could walk down it without getting your shorts wet. The sailboat faction was offered a brief, shining moment of hope when the hydrofoiling trimaran Hydroptere briefly stole the record back in 2009, with a 51.36-knot run. And how could you not root for a boat that sails like this?

The kiteboarders were unmoved, however, and callously smashed their way through the 55-knot barrier, reclaiming dominion over all those who use the wind to power across the surface of the sea. American Rob Douglas last year managed an astounding record run of 55.65 knots. It felt like another game-over moment, and maybe it is. So let’s give the man his due.

Now comes Paul Larsen, the most persistent sailor in Christendom, with Ver. 2 of his oddball SailRocket design. He’s been at it for closing in on a decade, and his team is set up, and starting to sail, in Walvis Bay, Namibia. Is there any chance he might pull off a miracle and restore honor to sailors everywhere? Well, the old SailRocket did break into the 50-plus knot instantaneous speed zone. But unfortunately it do so on the way to this spectacular outcome:

Ouch. But Larsen is not a man who knows how to move on. And the new SailRocket is presumably designed to stay (better) attached to the surface of the earth. It's hard not to feel like 55 knots is a stretch. But the beauty of speed sailing is you just never know. What if Larsen and his design team have cracked the code? What if he gets perfect conditions? What if he manages, against all the odds, to take the outright record back from those kite-flying upstarts? That's why I'll be watching on his website, and on Twitter.