Of foils and sails

Thu, 09/17/2020 - 6:15pm

One day this August I was sailing across Narragansett bay toward the Pell Bridge and saw this kid tear-assing by me on a foiling boat called a WASZP. It’s a sailboat with a foiling rig and the kid displayed some skills as he powered by my bow. He flew by me going 10 to 14 knots — maybe faster. This little sled is a One Design competitive racing boat whose design morphed from another foiling racer called a Moth. Both of these boats are very competitive. I’ll tell you, when I saw this kid zipping by me, I thought to myself, if they had these boats when I was 16 I’d be all over these things. We’re talking some serious fun; dare I say more fun than surfing!

Trying to go fast in sailboats is nothing new. The old design paradigm once was this: if you had more waterline than the other guy, you were probably going to beat him — more waterline means more speed. Not so with a foiling rig. Once you get to speed and the rig lifts, it’s game on and a race that will be determined not only by speed, but also by slick tactical decisions, finesse, and maneuvers. It’s a game of head chess with a blade cleaving the water below as you float through the air. So, the guy with the skills and nerve will win the day. It’s cutting edge competition. As I saw the young kid tearing by on the WASZP, I wondered if this guy will someday move on to larger foiling One Design boats, and then maybe end up doing some ocean racing on a foiling boat. An example of this is that on Narragansett Bay there is just such a boat preparing for the Ocean Race in 2021/2022. It’s called 11th Hour Racing, and is co-skippered by a Rhode Islander named Charlie Enright.

11th Hour Racing is an IMOCA 60 ocean racing foiling boat. The first time I saw Enright come into town with this rig, I immediately started tracking down some intel for my own natural curiosity. The IMOCA 60 racing culture is unlike anything I’ve ever seen for around-the-world sailboat racing. These boats are capable of speeds in the high 30s which is hard for a guy of my age and sailing experience to wrap my head around and imagine. The designers of these boats must be mindful of extraordinary loads on the foils as the boat is flying through the water. I read where there is 10 tons of pressure on an IMOCA 60’s foils when the boat is lifted. The calculus for this type of sailboat design is on a different level than ocean racers have ever encountered. However , there are guys like Charlie Enright and his co-skipper Mark Towill— both seasoned ocean racers — who are willing to throw down for these boats and this type of pioneering competition.

The Ocean Race is the latest iteration of the Whitbread and most recently, the Volvo Ocean Race. The last Volvo Ocean Race involved Volvo Open 65s which are a One Design boat that are all the same exact length and weight, where the name of the game was to out sail and outwit the other boats and their skippers and navigators — standard racing stuff. However, The Ocean Race of 2021/2022 is unique, in that there will be IMOCA 60s competing with Volvo Open 65s. It’s a more interesting race because the IMOCA 60 is kind of the new kid on the block because of its foiling capability. The Ocean Race is a punishing sprint around the globe and it draws some very bright and extremely competitive people. It’s a dangerous game, yet men and women stack up for a shot of being part of this formidable racing tradition.

This race will begin in Alicante, Spain, with several other stopovers including one in Newport, Rhode Island. The race will end in Genoa, Italy. Each team will be required to have two female crew on board. This race has since the original Whitbread, a heritage of crossing the world’s oceans, while passing the capes of the southern hemisphere to port, and sailing full on into the Southern Ocean to round Cape Horn. (This is without question the most insane part of the race.) Some of the worse weather conditions known to mankind happen in this patch of ocean, and it is desolate. Moreover, the boats are on their own if things go sideways in this place; tragedy from the last Volvo Ocean Race hovers over this part of the Southern Ocean. The idea of a foiling boat floating along at speeds in the high thirty knot range is daunting. Many things can go wrong on a sailboat going that fast: sails can blow out; masts can break and people can get washed overboard — dangerous stuff. The thought of either of these designs hitting a submerged object — they have watertight compartments — is unnerving and must constantly play on the minds of the sailors. Indeed, this is a dangerous game.

Over the next year it will be interesting to see how the 11th Hour Racing’s campaign shapes up as Charlie Enright, Mark Towill, et al, prepare their boat and crew to hit the starting line of this heady competition. I’m fascinated by the boat for what I’ve seen thus far of her up close dockside, and out on the water. The foil design, loads and applied math and physics are firing on a cutting-edge level right to the edge of where things can break. It’s a veritable testing platform. Finally, maybe that young kid I saw on the WASZP that day, really will find himself out there someday on an ocean foiling racer pushing his own personal and physical boundaries. Just sayin’.