As Portsmouth prepares to host the opening event for the new America’s Cup cycle with the AC World Series event the prospect of a fleet of six boats hammering into the first mark at 30+ knots, all flying on their foils, has raised eyebrows among the more conservative Cup followers. But the new generation of crew that are sailing these machines are lapping up this high octane action. Here’s why.
Clocking 40knots in a 45footer is not unusual, far from it – It’s the new norm, the start of a new generation.
But not everyone has bought into foil borne fleet racing. There are those who think it is simply too dangerous and others that say it ruins the beauty and elegance of watching long slender bows slice through waves like butter as they march upwind.
There are some that believe the current craze for body armour, crash helmets and oxygen bottles is simply a fad.
But from what I’ve seen this year, this is simply wrong. Foiling is here to stay and the action is only going to get faster.
For starters, take a look at the crews and listen to what they have to say about the new generation of foiling machines. They’re excited. This is new, fast and challenging. Some even admit that it’s quite scary. But it is also what they have grown up with.
During the first cycle of the AC World Series in 2011 it became clear that when conditions got tricky and the breeze got up into the 20+knot range the weather mark rounding would often be carnage and littered with capsized cats and shredded nerves. Yet in the same conditions the skiff and foiling Moth sailors simply gave the old men a wide berth at the top mark, bore away without burying the bows, deployed their gennakers and shot off downwind. Getting an AC45 around the top mark was easy compared to what they were used to.
After the capsize club in Plymouth 2011, where many went for a swim, the demolition derby in Naples 2012 was reserved largely for the older generation. This event in particular was a turning point and represented a change of guard for future Cup crews.
Certainly there were those that had come from displacement monohulls and stayed in the game, but not many. Dean Barker was one. Indeed, he and his team, (when he was at Emirates Team New Zealand), set the new foiling agenda by exploiting a loop hole in the rule. In doing so they defied the odds and changed the course of the 34th America’s Cup.
With foiling now in the game, for many teams it was becoming clear that it was time to look to new young talent to drive these outrageously fast boats. And when you look at where the younger sailors are coming from today, it is of no surprise that they are jumping on board and sending them for all they’re worth leaving the rest of us gawping with dropped jaws and fixed grins.
Yet the route to such high performance is more natural for this generation than you may think.
While today’s young sailors may start in an Optimist that has both the shape and the performance of a shoe box, many are barely 10 years old before they step into an RS Feva. This 12ft plastic monohull with its easy to hoist, gybe and drop asymmetric kite might look docile enough, but as any adult who’s taken their young child out in a breeze will attest, this boat is a pocket rocket. In the hands of two lightweight children it’s a junior missile.
From there, and as they get into their teens, it’s the single trapeze skiff style 29er that is the frequent weapon of choice. This is not just a quick boat, but one that delivers a skittish and delinquent behaviour given half a chance.
Little wonder then that by the time they get to the 49er, (and that now includes the girls in the 49fx), handling a boat that is bigger and more powerful is in some ways easier. By this time they are used to the kind of double figure speeds downwind that would have set a world record in the 1970s.
And it doesn’t stop there. Many have peeled off to join the foiling Moth circus, others have decided that kite surfing isn’t difficult enough and have bolted a hydrofoil onto the bottom of their high speed tea trays.
For those with Olympic aspirations, the queue for the 49er continues to extend around the block so to speak, but a new queue has formed for the Nacra 17, the twin trapeze cat for the next Games. (There is no queue it would seem for the 470 which I think says a great deal for what the next generation want to sail).
The Nacra is another potent boat that sets blistering speeds downhill and is a handful to keep on the straight and narrow. But even then, the new generation want to go even further.
This boat has curved dagger boards designed to provide some lift to help prevent the bows from burying at speed. This keeps the bows skinny and while it reduces buoyancy, their slender form helps to reduce drag and hence reduce the chances of pitch poling.
The curved dagger boards are not meant to lift the boat out of the water and foil, especially as there is no T-foil rudder to balance the back end of the boat on. Yet this is precisely what the new generation are already doing.
At the rate they are learning new tricks like this, the Olympic movement may have to introduce a freestyle format to cat sailing.
And then there are the foiling cats.
The Red Bull Foiling Generation is a series of talent spotting events around the world that seek to attract 16-20 year olds to race foiling Flying Phantoms. With events in Japan, the UK, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Russia and France – they have not been short of entries.
For the ‘grown ups’, (but only because of their adult price tags), the Nacra 20 and the GC32 foiling cats provide other platforms to blast around on.
So while you’re watching the AC World Series in Portsmouth and wondering whether it will catch on, don’t voice your reservations out loud, at least not near anyone in their twenties. This is their world and many of them are already very good at it.
Harping on about end for end gybes, checkstays, jumpers and rating bumps is only going to age you – assuming that is that any of them know what you’re talking about.
This is the start of a new wave for sailing. Make no mistake, foiling is here. And here to stay.
ACWS Portsmouth 23-26 July 15
Thursday – venue opens
Friday 1300 – 1530 – Practice racing – 2 x races
Saturday 1300 – 1530 – Fleet racing – 2 x 30 min races
Sunday 1300 – 1530 – Fleet racing – 2 x 30 min races
There will be live TV on BT Sports and highlights on BBC
I’ll be reporting live from the water with Steve Ancsell ashore on Portsmouth Live 93.7FM which will be streamed on line.