The history of the world speed sailing record is one of battles between boats, windsurfers and kitesurfers all vying for the ultimate prize
Speed sailing records are a relatively new concept. Although the motor car is a newer invention than the sailboat (by many thousands of years!) it was not until 1972 that the first official sailing speed record was set, a full 94 years after the first land speed record was set in a motor vehicle.
There are many reasons for this. Partly it is down to the difficulty of accurately recording speed in the water, and partly due to the fact that because sailboats and sailing craft had long been used for transportation, the tradition of record setting by yacht was all about covering significant distances (crossing oceans, or moving cargo over long stretches of water) in a time that was measured in hours and days, if not weeks.
Speed for a sailing boat was traditionally focussed – and largely remains so today – on maintaining high average speeds over long distances, rather than trying to create a sail-powered vessel or sailboat that could attain a single high peak speed.
Referring to the sailing speed record and world’s fastest boat, commonly means referencing the World Sailing Speed Record Council’s (WSSRC) 500m record – often called the ‘outright’ speed record and the first to be ratified by then newly formed WSSRC in 1972. But there are many other sailing speed records now, all ratified by the WSSRC.
Aside from the outright sailing speed record, the one nautical mile record and the 24-hour record are two more highly sought after records. The 1 nautical mile can often be competed in a craft designed for the outright record, whereas the 24 hour record is the preserve of ocean-going yachts and multihulls. The current 24-hour record was set at an average speed of 37.83 knots, covering a distance of 907.9 nautical miles in the 24 hour period.
Speed sailing record venues
Initially speed sailing records were set at events run in conjunction with the WSSRC where any number of vessels designed for outright speed would compete over a predetermined 500m course.
Typically these venues would feature a stretch of water that was flat enough that waves would not be an issue and was also likely to have some decent wind at the time of the event.
In the early days, Portland near Weymouth in the UK (the sailing venue for the 2012 Olympic Games) was the effective home of speed sailing and saw the first seven records all set there. With its sheltered harbour and regular strong winds – particularly in the autumn – it was a great venue.
However, as windsurfers and other craft that could be sailed in shallower water came to the fore in speed sailing other venues were found, or created, which took the flat water and high wind concept a step further.
One of the most famous speed sailing venues is the Saintes Maries de la Mer Speed Canal, know as either ‘The Canal’ or ‘The French Trench’. This is a man-made shallow canal that was dug in a west-northwest/east-southeast orientation designed to take advantage of the incredibly strong Marin and Mistral winds that blow in that location.
This venue effectively became home to the world speed sailing record throughout the late 1980s until the early 2000s.
Another (semi) man-made venue, which was particularly effective for kitesurfers, took over as the speed sailing venue of choice from the early 2000s onwards, reflecting the move away from windsurfers holding the record to kite surfers vying for the record. Luderitz, Namibia features a 1 km by 7 km lagoon , where between August and March every year there is a consistent, strong wind, blowing from the south at the perfect angle of 140 degrees to the course.
Initially this course was relatively untouched to set records but man-made elements have since been introduced to reduce chop and perfect the sailing angle, so that now, the venue resembles The Canal in France.
Despite these three venues between them being the locations for the vast majority of speed sailing records being set, others were used as individual challenges went in search of the perfect venue for their craft – or got lucky with the perfect wind and wave state elsewhere. Among the most famous is Walvis Bay, Namibia, home of the current speed sailing record.
Speed sailing record history
As reflected in the changing venues over time, the history of the speed sailing record is one of different types of craft coming to dominate over long periods of time before being overtaken by new developments.
Crossbow and Crossbow II
The fist speed sailing record was set by Tim Colman in his Proa, Crossbow. She was 56 feet long and had a 60 foot mast, but the main hull was a mere 22 inches wide.
A Proa features more than one hull but in an asymmetric configuration with the smaller hull essentially providing righting moment to counter the forces of the sails. The smaller, outrigger hull on Crossbow was separated by 30 feet crossbeams from the main hull, and was where the crew sat in order to add their weight to the righting moment of the boat.
In 1972 Crossbow claimed the record for the world’s fastest yacht at 26.3 knots. Coleman would set another two records in the boat in 1973 (29.30 knots) and 1975 (31.10 knots).
Coleman then launched another boat, Crossbow II, designed to bat his previous records.
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Crossbow II had a waterline length of over 60 feet and was unique in many ways. Each hull had its own mast and sail which produced a bi-plane rig.
She was more similar to a catamaran than a proa, but her two hulls were not built square to each other as in the traditional style of catamarans. Instead the two hulls were ‘slewed’, with the leeward one several feet forward of the windward one. This was done to reduce the aerodynamic interference of the two rigs.
She was a resounding success and by 1980 had set four more records over the years, culminating in a final top speed of 36 knots.
The age of the windsurfer
Crossbow II’s record stood for six years but change was afoot in the speed sailing world as windsurfers where becoming more advanced and closing in on the record. In 1986, Frenchman Pascal Maka set a new record of 38.86 at Sotavento, Fuerteventura.
Maka was ousted from the top spot in 1988, with Briton Eric Neale setting a new record at the Canal in France and becoming the first person to set a speed sailing record over 40 knots.
Maka took the record back in 1990 before Thierry Bielak went on to set three new records at the same location topping out at 45.34 knots.
Yellow Pages Endeavour was, and remains, one of the most recognisable sailboats for many. She was an impressive bit of kit, designed by Australian Lindsay Cunningham specifically to set a new outright speed sailing record.
In concept she is not dissimilar to a proa though she featured a central skimming hull, and two outriggers, one to windward where the pilot sat and controlled the boat and one to leeward which would counter the force of the sail.
The sail itself was a solid wingsail providing a vast amount of power for its size. The whole thing was something of a technological marvel for its time. However, unlike windsurfers, it could not be sailed in a canal or trench and so the team needed to find a suitably flat coastal area in order to set their record.
In 1993 Yellow Pages Endeavour set a new speed sailing record of 46.52 knots, seemingly putting the record beyond the reach of the windsurfing world.
Cunningham and his team continued to hunt for a new outright record designing a new boat, Macquarie Innovation, which was a development of Yellow Pages with the hopes of putting the record even further out of reach. But they never managed to officially top that first record – the Yellow Pages record eventually stood for 11 years.
Over the course of those 11 years many began to wonder if this record could ever be broken and talk of a theoretical top speed of 50 knots became widespread. But finally in 2004 Finian Maynard on a windsurfer set another new record of 46.82 knots back at the old hunting ground of The Canal in France.
Maynard set another record in 2005, which held for a couple of years before Frenchman, Antoine Albeau stormed to a new record of 49.09 knots in 2008.
All of a sudden 50 knots seemed to be in reach.
Kitesurfing speed records
Just as the windsurfing fraternity had claimed their time at the forefront of speed sailing records, a new upstart sport, kitesurfing began closing in on the windsurfers’ top speeds.
Kitesurfers had been building ever more impressive speeds over the course of the early 2000s, and in the same year Albeau set his record, American Robert Douglas stepped even closer to 50 knots, setting a record of 49.84 knots in Luderitz, Namibia.
It was a particularly good year for records in Luderitz, Namibia as Douglas was immediately ousted by Sebastien Cattelan, the Frenchman becoming the first to top 50 knots setting a new record of 50.26 knots.
But he quickly saw his record fall to fellow countryman Alexandre Caizergues who topped out 2008’s impressive four new records with a 50.57 knot run.
Unusually in the history of the speed sailing record, it was an ocean crossing boat that would be the next to take the mantle of world’s fastest boat, setting a new record, not in a trench or a canal, or even relatively calm bay, but out to sea.
Hydroptère was the experimental hydrofoiling trimaran that was the brainchild of skipper, helmsman and project founder Alain Thébault, together with design studio VPLP. It was built on principles Thébault proved as early as the 1990s and launched in 2008.
It featured two huge hydrofoils on each outermost hull, which would fully life the boat out of the water.
She would set many distance records in her time, but shortly after she was launched, Hydroptère blasted into the record books, grabbing the 500m record for the D Class (44.8 knots) and the nautical mile record (41.6 knots).
The team’s ultimate goal was the outright sailing speed record, though and in 2009, she pushed this to 52.8 knots, and in the same year set a record of 50.1 knots over a one-mile course.
Although the kitesufers which came before had broken 50 knots, for many Hydroptère’s record was the final nail in the coffin for the theoretical 50 knot limit for a speed sailing vessel.
But the story was not quite over yet for the kitesurfing world, with several new records set in 2010, before the first man to set a speed sailing record on a kiteboard, Robert Douglas, also became the most recent person to do so, hitting 55.65 knots on his kiteboard in Namibia.
Vestas Sail Rocket 2
Having attempted to set new records in his original SailRocket design, Australian born Paul Larsen launched Vestas Sail Rocket 2 in 2011.
The boat, much like Yellow Pages, was build specifically with record breaking in mind and featured a plethora of technological advances. Special foils were designed and built, a solid wing sail was designed and built and the craft followed an aerodynamic philosophy of balancing forces that had never been seen before.
The Sail Rocket team identified Walvis Bay in Namibia as the best venue for them to set a record and went about their business over the course of the next year.
After years of trial and error from their first boat launch to getting Sail Rocket 2 up to speed, finally in 2012 they got the right conditions and managed a recorded run of 59.23 knots.
But it was not over there, as they quickly upped that 59.37 knots before finally obliterating the record to set a new speed sailing record of 65.45 knots.
This is the record that stands today 10 years on. It’s a significant legacy, and one which has not been close to being beaten for many years.
But technology is always moving forward and the history of the speed sailing record tends to be that of long periods of no activity before a flurry of new records push it ever higher.
There are already teams talking of 80 knots in the future, with two challengers launching boats soon. Watch this space…
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