CENTER OF EFFORT
As French gunslingers unleash their foil-borne craft upon the blue planet’s passage records, we’re all in a sea state of mind.
As new foiling giants of the sea embark to rewrite the record book, there’s a new respect for sea state.
Foiling expert Gino Morrelli wants to apologize to anyone developing tooling for foils. There is so much learning going on, he says, that the best designs we have today will be obsolete in eight months. And if design and engineering are moving that fast, so too is the foiling scene. Blink and you’ll find that while you were away, open-ocean “flying” became almost normal. Routing strategies are changing with the arrival of a new generation of long-distance record hunters, Gitana 17 being a prime example, the first 100-foot Ultime designed from the get-go as a full-foiling boat for the ocean. While mortals marvel at what a few of our brethren, mostly French, accomplish with their gigantic, volatile, wind- carving contraptions, the ante is raised again.
Forget about tacticians looking for more and more wind. For the new order that Morrelli foresees, think sea- state sailing. Smooth water. Foiling water. Morrelli, president of Morrelli & Melvin Design, says, “If you can fly on foils at 2 or 2.5 times the windspeed, you’re looking for 10 to 20 knots of breeze, because most of the time that’s where you’ll find the optimum sea state.”
As record hunters transition from C-foils and partial lift, the percentage of full-foiling time looms as critical among factors that can be controlled, or sometimes controlled. Racing around the world, transitioning between systems and trade winds on the “vertical” transits of the Atlantic — southbound to the Cape of Good Hope, northbound from Cape Horn — luck will continue to play a role in finding the best conditions. Record-setting navigator Stan Honey points out, departing from Europe: “You can pick your weather as far as the equator. After that, you’re into long-range forecasts, and you play the hand you’re dealt. But those vertical legs are the most interesting racing there is.”
For the high latitudes of the Southern Ocean, Morrelli predicts that, with foilingspeed capability, “you will no longer have to go all the way to the extremes of 60 degrees south.” And we’ll come back to that.
This is a unique moment, placing seastate issues front and center, but the fundamental notions have been around. They apply to anything very big and very fast. Honey relates: “When I circumnavigated in 2010 with Franck Cammas, I saw that the French are far along in this kind of thinking. For Groupama 3 [whose C-foils did not make it ‘ fly’], I created a matrix of empirical tables that accounted for the degradation in speed from waves depending on direction, height and interval. An additional factor is the angle between wave and swell. If wave and swell trains come at right angles to each other, they throw up columns of water.” Think “slow.” Slow doesn’t make for records. When Francois Gabart set out on November 4, 2017, for his solo round-theworld record attempt with Macif, he was sailing a 2016 weapon fitted with lateral foils on all three of the trimaran’s rudders, and angled, L- shaped retractable foils in the floats. Those foils, deployed, present a V-profile to the water. They echo the foils that enabled self-leveling stable foiling on New Zealand’s 2013 America’s Cup challenger, are likewise adjustable for pitch, and are capable of occasional “flight.” At press time, Macif was doing just fine careening across the Southern Ocean with 700 miles of cushion in the 49-day record.
And if you’ve been wondering how long it would take to leave off the gee- whiz cheerleading and get down to the yes-things-can-go-wrong stuff, we’re here. But so far, nothing has gone terribly wrong. The key is to engineer a foiler that can become a nonfoiler as needed. This is what makes that first full-foiling Ultime, Gitana 17, a fascinating case. A second-place finish in the 2017 Transat Jacque Vabre can’t be bad when it’s your debut race, but this is a complex beast. Both port and starboard foils failed. They worked for Sébastien Josse and Thomas Rouxel for only one-fourth of
the Atlantic crossing. Designer Guillaume Verdier — a veteran of Emirates Team New Zealand’s efforts from early foil development to success in 2017 — views that early result with big-picture optimism: “To go offshore, we make sure that whatever happens to the foils (collisions, damage) and whatever the weather, whatever the wave height, the boat is fine. That’s the game — that and being able to take off on foils whenever we can in waves of reasonable size. We have shown that it is doable in spite of small technical problems on our very new boat.”
Gitana 17’ s outer-hull T-foil rudders incorporate “fuses” that allow them to kick up in a collision and, if need be, the rudders can be lifted clear for inspection. Or, in a reaching condition where the windward foil takes a beating, it can be raised, locked into the ama, and disconnected to free the rest of the steering system to operate. The rudder elevators are designed to be trimmed via softwaremonitored hydraulics, but the software was not yet integrated for the boat’s first race. Every added system increases weight, but when the foils are deployed and lifting, weight all but disappears from the equation.
The next barrier is cavitation, somewhere in the range of 50 knots, and once a concern only to exotica challenging the 500-meter record. Welcome to a new world. With higher speeds come higher structural loads, also higher impact loads, and our oceans are burdened with more debris than ever before. Morrelli says, with a tinge of impatience: “Right now, as designers, we’re working on keeping the foils in the boat, period. We can’t be distracted by tasty concepts like twisting foils, warping foils, deflecting tips that soften shock loads. Collision survival is the call. We know how to build foils that are OK hitting a two-by-four. We can survive hitting a four-by-four. If you’re talking 12-inch tree trunks, it’s game over.”
As he prepared for a January record-hunting departure, 13,000 miles from Hong Kong to London, Giovanni Soldini decided that his 70-foot Maserati would sail without its flight-capable Verdier foils. The boat can beat the existing 41-day record without them, he says, and “we’ve lost two rudders in the past six months, each to a UFO. We’re developing a system of Guillaume’s fuses that will probably be ready in the spring. Until then we are not adding risks.”
For any record hunter, the key to competing successfully is to maintain high average speeds in moderate latitudes. The book is still out on what higher potential speeds will mean when other endeavors take the boats to the Southern Ocean. ( Gabart on Macif at one point crossed 56 degrees south and was on alert for ice.) Honey likens the passage between the capes, Good Hope to Horn, to a conveyor belt. With storms circulating unobstructed around the bottom of the world, the strategic game has been to cover the distance by riding the leading edge of each of two systems. As storm No. 1 inevitably spins away to the south, the game is to disengage and hook into the next. Groupama 3’ s 2010 Jules Verne record, Honey relates, almost did not happen. System No. 1 “got ahead of us,” he says, and only because a different system out yonder stalled the weather they were riding, “this became the one and only time I was able to sail through a front and get ahead of it. I don’t know whether we’ll ever see a foiler go from way behind to way ahead on its own.”
And that raises a question: Hey, Gino, are there more surprises coming in flying boats?
“We’re 15 minutes beyond the Wright brothers.” Q
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