Speed, Speed, Speed

This week, Paul Larsen, with his SailRocket, and a group of speed-hungry kiteboarders are gunning to hit 56 knots under sail.

Sailing World

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With his SailRocket, Paul Larsen is aiming to break the current speed-sailing record, 55.65 knots.Lloyd Images

It's Speed Week here on Planet Earth. Amid all the noise of the imminent Volvo Ocean Race, the imminent Transat Jacques Vabre, the not-that-imminent America's Cup (but imminent Act in San Diego), the ongoing Mini Transat, and the ongoing Global Ocean Race, I urge you to take a moment to turn your attention to the crazed fraternity that cares for only one thing: going faster under sail than any human has before.

Here's why. Down in Namibia, you've got Paul Larsen, who after years of persistence has finally bootstrapped his wacky SailRocket design into the 50-plus knots zone, and is seemingly within striking distance of the current record of 55.65 knots. Here's what that looks like:

Larsen is still tweaking—and this week is racing to repair a broken beam—and hoping for record-breaking conditions.

And a few hundred miles south of Larsen's course at Walvis Bay, at Luderitz, the kiteboarders are not sitting idly by while SailRocket stalks their speed-sailing crown. They have organized the Luderitz Speed Challenge 2011, their custom ditch is all set up, they've gathered a crowd of top kite "sailors," and they are waiting for the wind to blow really hard (forecast for next week looks good). I've never been comfortable thinking of what they do as pure "sailing," but it sure looks cool in this teaser from last year:

And that's not all. Thousands of miles away from the Namibia action, the current world-record holder, Rob Douglas, has been kiting with some buds up in Martha's Vineyard, at the 2011 North American Speed Sailing Invitational, laying down some fast times and having a lot of fun.

Episode 2 is below.

I've watched Paul Larsen plug away at this speed-sailing title for what seems like a decade. At first, it looked like Mission Impossible, with SailRocket again and again delivering spectacular disappointment. But Larsen never, ever, gave up. He kept rebuilding, refining, and coming back. His craft is also closer to what I would consider a sailing vessel than the modified skimboards the kiters traverse the waves on, so for now my heart is with him and the SailRocket team. I loved it when Hydroptere stole the record back in 2009 (how can you not love this?). And SailRocket deserves its 15 minutes, too.

At the same time, the kiters (are the windsurfers totally out of the running in this quest?) are really growing on me. They are anarchic renegades, doing their thing with verve and élan. I don’t know what sort of egotistical BS, or marketing politics, might explain a situation where Rob Douglas is not in Namibia, the scene of his triumph last year. But it's lame and a shame. Perhaps it's the sort of drama that the kiting world thrives on. To me, the focus should be on the real drama: sailing speeds never even imagined just a decade or two ago. Because when you dig into what that takes, you know there is nothing more compelling. Here’s Rob Douglas explaining how it all came together (and providing a hint of why he is not at Luderitz this year):

At least with speed sailors spread out all over the globe, the odds of a new speed sailing record go up. That’s something I want to see, no matter who delivers it, because the 60-knot barrier is next. I wonder how long it will be before we are talking about 100 knots? Sooner than you would expect, is my guess.