With a fleet of ten, the GC32 Tour is the biggest fleet of foiling cats and the action on board is both breathtakingly fast and unnerving, as Elaine Bunting finds out
Success can be a scary thing. That was my thought on board one of ten GC32s as they blasted off at 30-plus knots on a reaching start. This sight, at the GC32 Malescine Cup in Italy in July, was the biggest ever fleet race to date of foiling catamarans. With so many together, the pace and proximity are hair-raising.
As the guest rider on the French team, Engie, I was placed in a spot ahead of the forward beam, a position that gives a royal box view of the blast start but is precariously close to the sharp ends. The first leg is like a cavalry charge. The helmsmen are dodging other boats metres away while weaving downwind in an effort to keep up on foils. Riding high, and unnervingly close to the bow, I was piercingly aware that it would take just one mistake or lapse of concentration to cause a serious crash. I remember thinking: ‘They need an airbag,’ while simultaneously realising that I might be it.
The GC32s are the new choice of boat for the Extreme Sailing Series, though in fact the bigger circuit is the GC32 Tour. This comprises a series of races on Lake Garda and in Palma and Marseille. Originally considered the owner-driver tour as opposed to the corporate sponsor tour, this has become more of a proving ground for teams wishing to get flying time and technical know-how to equip them for the America’s Cup or other foiling ambitions.
The field is international. There are teams from Sweden, France, Japan, Monaco, USA and the Netherlands. America’s Cup sailors such as Franck Cammas, Iain Percy and Glenn Ashby are here, racing Norauto, Gunvor and Team Tilt respectively. This is rather like a smaller scale AC World Series event, but without the public show.
But not everyone is here with an eye on the Cup. French sailor Sébastien Rogues’s Engie team is here to gain foiling expertise to apply to offshore sailing. Rogues, a former Mini and Tour de France a la Voile sailor, has the backing of this French energy company to explore techniques and technology and apply them to a very big foiling boat he hopes to build and sail round the world non-stop for the Jules Verne Trophy.
Rogues, like most sailors in this circuit, believes that foiling is on the cusp of being applied to every leading edge area of the sport. He has completed feasibility studies on a fully crewed catamaran (he actually calls it “a hybrid” of catamaran and trimaran) of approximately 30m that can foil in seas of up to 3m. In the race to get up on foils he will be competing against established projects such as François Gabart’s MACIF and Thomas Coville’s Sodeb’O, though he would be coming at it with a foil-first design approach. He will officially launch his project later this year.
Others see the GC32 as a spectacle in itself. Interested parties from other countries, such as the Greek Challenge, are here too. For class founders Laurent Lenne, Flavio Marazzi, Andrew MacPherson and Christian Peer, there is every chance that next year will see more than ten on the start line.
The fleet size and speed demands skill that experienced crew say only comes from ‘flying hours’. This pool is growing rapidly. Meanwhile, high speed foil racing is raising interesting new issues that will need to be resolved as it gains popularity, such as adapting the Racing Rules of Sailing for mark rounding (three boatlengths are over in the blink of an eye), and developing RIBs and chase boats that can keep pace with these super-fast boats and take quick avoiding action.
The sheer physicality involved in racing these boats is impressive. The GC32s are deemed at the limit of what a crew can handle manually without the help of hydraulics, especially raising the foils in a hurry. It is no coincidence the crews are built like rugby forwards. The pace on board through gybes and tacks is frenetic.
Team Engie has its own physio who treats a recurrent mixture of back, shoulder and lumbar problems. He has recorded an average heart rate of 140bpm during races, topping out at 180bpm for short periods. The crew work is fascinating to watch, up close or from a distance.
Although the GC32s are at a scale suited primarily to honed professional sailors, amateur or semi-professional fleet racing are sooner or later bound to follow in a more manageable and affordable class. When that happens, this will be a sport with thrills – but almost certainly spills – comparable to downhill mountain biking or skiing.