It's the 40th annual Weymouth Speed Week. I look back at inventions whacky and brilliant
Now that offshore racers and even round the world multihulls can quite unremarkably get up to speeds of 40 knots and the 50-knot barrier recedes in the rear view mirror, the speed equation has tipped. The possible gains are diminishing while the costs of attaining them have mostly escalated.
So it’s brilliant to think of the continuation of the great yet low-key tradition that is Weymouth Speed Week. This annual, week-long wake-fest begins tomorrow. It has always been a festival of boffins, physicists and putative sailing stuntmen.
To give you a bit of the background of what has historically been a decidedly amateur affair (amateur in much same way as Mensa), the first ever John Player/RYA Speed Week was run 40 years ago this month.
Portland was chosen because it was sheltered but windy and had negligible tidal stream. The venue really decided the measured speed distance of 500 metres because there was insufficient room for a measured mile and this distance was immediately accepted as the standard for a ‘World Record’ and has remained so ever since.
Since the first of the speed festivals in 1972 there have always been a fascinating collection of inventions, ranging from serious, well-funded ones such as Timothy Colman’s Crossbow, to the weird and whacky. It was fundamentally an anoraky event, and all the better for that.
Crossbow was one of the most famous craft to come out of the early Speed Weeks. It was essentially a very large canoe, 60ft overall, with an all-up weight of 680kg and a sail area of a shade under 100m2. The crew of four kept it upright by hanging off the end of a 25ft outrigger.
Being a one-way proa severely limited the number of runs it could make and the rig was never very satisfactory. In spite of this it was always the fastest boat at Portland and raised the best speed from an initial 26.3 knots in 1972 to 31.2 knots. To put that in context, that was back 1975.
The bi-plane-rigged Crossbow II (pictured above) followed in 1980. An interesting idea, it had two una rigs of 60m2 each. The lee hull and rig was set 13ft ahead of the windward one to avoid backwinding.
Though designed to sail on starboard tack, this boat could at least gybe and return to the start of the run. The design finally hit a top speed of 36 knots, which stood as an outright world record for a number of years.
It was at Speed Week that foils were first tried in earnest, with all manner of T-foils, flaps, tabs, feelers and the like. Christopher Hook produced a craft named Miss Strand Glass which had automatic ride-height and roll control plus manual over-ride. Unfortunately the one thing he failed to control was weight and it never quite achieved lift-off.
Wing masts were tried and designers sought to eliminate heeling force. A then little-known young designer named Nigel Irens was part of a team that designed Clifton Flasher, a catamaran with a five-element solid wing rig with trailing-edge flaps.
King of the eccentrics was Didier Costes, who spent 30 years developing his idea of a balanced offset rig that developed no heeling force, needed no sheeting force and whose side force was countered by a windward-pulling ‘hapa’.
One of the more famous inventions was Jacob’s Ladder. Ian Day modified a Tornado to pull it along by a stack of kites. During Speed Week in 1982, spectators were said to have looked on open-mouthed as boat and stack took off completely and flew through the air, dropping crew off astern on its flight path.
Windsurfers first arrived in 1977 and the early speedsters thought that was funny. But their speeds kept rising, eventually outrunning the more boaty boats and whacky inventions.
Today, the outright records are set elsewhere, the ‘French Trench’ in Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue or the speed trench in Luderitz, Namibia, where conditions are frequently ideal for high-speed runs close to shore.
But despite no longer giving birth to new world records, Weymouth Speed Week lives on as a get-together for experimental boats and free-thinking ideas, a place where geeks and speed freaks rub shoulders and make sparks fly.