The ETF26 is a super-light foiling catamaran designed to be sailed by ‘average’ sailors as well as professionals

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Seven knots of true wind and a few quick pumps on the mainsheet was all it took to have the 8m cat rise up onto her foils and slip downwind at 16 knots. I’ve been faster, but in such calm conditions and flat water, to hiss past dozens of conventional keelboats sitting bolt upright as they ghosted along was a surreal experience.

I struggled to believe my GPS plot but there it was, a steady 16 knots with several peaks of 17. And on Lake Geneva, no tide could artificially inflate the figures.

With the gennaker furled as we rounded an imaginary bottom mark, the S-shaped daggerboard pushed all the way down to set the under water part of the foil in the L-configuration, we settled into the upwind ‘leg’ in displacement mode. Even here we were slicing along at just over 10 knots. It was clear this is an exceptionally slippery boat.

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ETF26 flies close to the water surface for better control. Photo: Martina Orsini

That’s just what you might expect given that we were sailing the ETF26 on a lake that is famous for its lightweight flyers on the eve of the world’s biggest lake race, the annual Mirabaud Bol d’Or.

But while the ETF26 demonstrated her impressive and nimble performance in the light, my hosts were not to know the level at which they’d be tested 24 hours later when a vicious 60-knot storm, complete with torrential rain, hail and lightning, swept the lake.

Despite the horrendous conditions, they and two of their sisterships survived the pasting. Many bigger boats didn’t. Another impressive performance by what is essentially an overgrown, upmarket beach cat.

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Conceived by offshore legend Jean-Pierre Dick, designed by Guillaume Verdier and originally launched in 2016 as the ‘Easy To Fly 26’, the ETF26 has been quietly building support in an ever-expanding market of high octane hydrofoiling cats.

Now, with a fleet of 12 boats built and a European racing circuit that drew seven teams across three European venues last year for the second consecutive season, the newly rebranded class is gathering pace.

But this is more than just another foiling flying machine designed to fill a gap in the market. This is a high performance cat aimed as much at normal sailors new to multihulls as it is for experienced foiling fanatics or fearless youths. The owner of Cool Runnings is a prime example of just this.

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The carbon hulls are mainly solid laminate in order to achieve robust structures that can be easily repaired. Photo: Gilles Morelle

“I have very little depth to my sailing experience,” said Thorkild Juncker. “After sailing as a kid in Denmark I gave up for 30 years and came back to it with an X35 and then a Dragon, as I wanted to learn how to helm.

“From there, I had an Open 7.5 sportsboat, but having seen the America’s Cup boats in 2014 I knew I wanted to have a go at foiling. So I set myself a goal, to learn how to race a foiling boat by the time I was 60. I’m 63 now and absolutely loving it. The big thing is getting used to the speed, but when you do it’s superb, there’s so much going on when you start getting into the high 20 and low 30 knots.”

Class founder Jean-Pierre Dick had also been drawn to foiling through watching the AC70s in the San Francisco America’s Cup. “As soon as I saw them race I thought ‘this has to be the future’. But my idea was to create a boat that would appeal to the large numbers of sailors who, like me, had been racing sportsboats like Melges 24s,” he said.

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The sails are by North Sails and include a deck sweeper for the mainsail that improves the sail’s aerodynamics by creating an effective end plate, said to give more stability in flight. Photo: Martina Orsini

“But there was nothing really in this size. There was the Flying Phantom, which was too small, and the GC32, which was too big, heavy and expensive. So we started the project with Guillaume Verdier. Today we have a strict one-design class that suits a crew of three or four within the 260kg max crew weight limit. Light weight is one of the keys to this boat, the ability to fly easily means that we were able to create good handling characteristics and make her a safe boat to foil.”

Of the two key features that help this, a simple deck layout and foil controls are one, the ability for the boat to ride close to the water, at around 50cm, is another. “Our boards are much shorter when you compare them to, say, a GC32,” continued Dick.

“Flying lower is safer if you do crash. Also, when we sail downwind we raise the S-boards slightly, which makes for more of a V configuration under the water. This helps to achieve a degree of self-levelling and makes the ride more stable,” he said. Dick is understandably proud of the fact that so far no one has pitch-poled their boat and, while there have been a handful of capsizes, no one has yet broken anything as a result.

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Daggerboards are manually raised/lowered and trimmed using the orange control lines. The S-shape allows the daggerboards to switch from upwind to downwind mode. Photo: Matt Sheahan

But while the cat is easy to manage, all are clear that foiling requires a number of different techniques. Cool Runnings’s principal helmsman and professional sailor Jochen Visser admits to a background entirely in monohull keelboats and points to some of the key differences that he and his team of cat novices have had to learn.

“Getting used to the speed is one key factor. The laylines come up very quickly indeed, so quickly that you have to have your plan sorted before you start racing,” he said. “There’s no time to work things out once you’re under way, like you might do on the Dragon on the downwind leg.”

Boathandling is another new skill set. “We can be travelling at 35-36 knots in flat water but drop the speed down to around 25-28 in waves in order to make the boat more controllable,”  he continued.

“Another of the key handling details is learning not to ease the mainsheet for the bear-away at the top mark. These boats accelerate so fast that you don’t need to and don’t want to either as you simply twist off the mainsail and cause all kinds of trim issues. It feels counterintuitive at first, but it’s details like these that you need to learn and it’s exciting.”

For the construction of the ETF26, Dick set up an assembly facility called Absolute Dreamer. “The hulls are built by Multiplast, the mast and boom by Axxon Composites and the rudders and foils by Avel Robotics,” he said. “The whole boat is designed to be rigged or de-rigged and packed on a trailer in around two hours. You don’t need a crane to step the mast and the cat can be launched off the trailer, so it’s very versatile.”

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Cool Runnings’s owner Thorkild Juncker trails his boat and their support RIB on the same trailer around to the various European regattas behind a normal car or van. Photo: Matt Sheahan

All of which makes for a boat that is easily manageable by a team of three for weekend sailing. Add to this the appeal for those looking to step from the real world of enthusiastic amateur sailing into the foiling world and Thorkild Juncker’s enthusiasm sums up the appeal. “When I saw foiling for real I just thought, sailing hasn’t changed in 2,000 years and now this – I have to be a part of it!”

Specification

LOA: 8.10m (26ft 7in)
Beam: 4.30m (14ft 1in)
Mast height: 13.70m (44ft 11in)
Draught: 1.20m (3ft 11in)
Weight: 350kg (772lb)
Main Sail 3Di: 29.50m² (318ft2)
Self-tailing jib 3Di: 11.00m² (118ft2)
Code 0: 26.50m² (285ft2)
Gennaker: 49.50m² (533ft2)

First published in the December 2019 edition of Yachting World.