Sailing fast on foils isn't just for the pros

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“Ready?” the skipper asks. The guys nod as they stack up on the windward rail, all the way aft. Everything is just as it always is. Then comes the command: “Unfurl!” In a flash the R1 reaching sail, all 1,200 square feet of it, is catching the breeze off Newport, Rhode Island, as the crew grinds in the sheet. And all of a sudden, nothing is as it always is. The helmsman heads up slightly to build pressure, and the boat leaps forward, spray flying off the leeward bow as it shaves the crests off the little waves. Faster, faster and faster still.

The Gunboat G4 in skimming mode, pushing approximately 20 knots and showing the L-shaped daggerboard under the windward hull.

There is a strange ambient noise. Not the throaty rumble of a 12- cylinder. Not the nervous roar of a turbo. No, this is different: a low hum, barely audible at first, quickly increasing in volume and pitch as the wind swings at me just like Smokin’ Joe pummeled Ali in the “Thrilla in Manila.” But what’s with the water? Shouldn’t it be shooting across the deck with the force of a fire hose? And why is there no pitching? This thing is running as if on rails.

A peek to leeward confirms; the bow is riding high and dry. And we’re still accelerating, converting wind energy into raw speed, not heel, because there’s nothing in the water to put up resistance. The sound is now a high-pitched whine approaching a crescendo. “Hear that? It’s the om of foiling,” says the man at the helm, smiling.

A leap for sailing

Within minutes, Fort Adams is a speck on the horizon, and our wake seems to stretch all the way back to it. How fast we’re going is anyone’s guess because the boat has no working instruments. Luckily, there’s an app for that. It says 27.8 mph, which is a shade under 25 knots. Not bad for a sunset sail but nowhere near the maximum speed potential of Timbalero 3, a Gunboat G4 catamaran, which reportedly has surpassed 35 knots. That’s more than 40 mph. Along for the ride: two double berths; a galley with sink, stove and cooler; a properly plumbed head; and standing headroom, thank you very much. (The vase with the flowers was taken off before we left the dock.)

Gunboat’s latest model targets younger and sportier sailors who want to pair high performance with some creature comforts. It’s a high-stakes gamble for company president Peter Johnstone, who has been navigating a rough stretch that started last January when the first Gunboat 55 cruising cat was dismasted in a squall off North Carolina and abandoned by the crew. It continued with the capsize of the G4 prototype in the Caribbean in the spring, and in September Gunboat filed a lawsuit in Rhode Island’s U.S. District Court against Hudson Yacht and Marine Industries — a Taiwan-based firm that built Gunboat catamarans under contract in China — alleging shoddy or incomplete work and prompting Hudson to countersue for breach of contract and defamation.

But Johnstone likes bold bets, as he proved with the Escape dinghy he conceived and marketed long before simple rotomolded sailboats became chic. His G4 might be a small step for yacht design, but it could be a huge leap for the philosophy of recreational sailing. In 2013 the world watched with mouths agape as professional sailors screamed along cheek to jowl with foiling AC72 catamarans during the America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay. Now here we are, two years on, and similar performance is available to Joe Sixpack, who could own a 40-foot catamaran that’s capable of breakneck speeds, suspended above the water on appendages that work like hydrofoils. At least that’s the theory.

The on-site impression was that the G4 requires quite a bit of elbow grease for sailing pedal-to-the-metal. And the helmsman does well to keep cool and pay attention to the seat of his pants because this boat is a highly tuned machine that reacts to subtle adjustments. As the capsize in the Caribbean showed, even seasoned pros can have their hands full when the breeze is on. The key is good coordination and communication between helm and trimmers when the music starts.

One critical moment is the skimming phase before the boat reaches “takeoff speed,” at a pretty jazzy 18 or 19 knots, which launches it onto the foils. But despite the possibility of going bottom up, or perhaps because of it, the Gunboat booth was well trafficked at the Newport boat show in September, where the G4 was on display for the first time. Sure, only a few of those clambering on board were in the ballpark to buy, but some might aspire to try foiling on smaller boats, or they might sign up for a class simply because foiling is in.

Old trick in a new context

Gunboat president Peter Johnstone is betting the G4 will appeal to younger sailors who want high performance and creature comforts.

Boats on foils aren’t exactly new. Powerboats have used them since around 1906, and the first U.S. patent for a hydrofoiling sailboat was granted in the mid ’60s. It used to be a freak technology, but production boats such as the Hobie Trifoiler or the WindRider Rave, despite their limitations, heralded the future 20 years ago. Extreme designs, such as L’Hydroptere and Vestas Rocket, set speed records on foils, and the tiny International Moth, which weighs 70 pounds all up, was the first dinghy class that embraced foiling, nearly 15 years ago, and has been at the forefront of many developments.

After the 2013 Cup, foiling fever rapidly spread to multihulls, and not just to professional racing machines, but also beach cats, such as the Flying Phantom and the Nacra 20 FCS. They are built from lightweight carbon fiber laminate and have foils that can be adjusted “on the fly,” up and down and in angle of attack.

Much of the technology in the Gunboat G4 trickled down from A-Class catamarans, a development class that pioneered important innovations that became mainstream in performance multihulls, including wave-piercing hulls. “[The project] was 12 years in the making,” says Johnstone. “I wanted a coastal cruiser that offered ‘glamping’ [glamorous camping] and a central saloon with a 360-degree view, which is the key comfort feature of Gunboats.”

He started out with sketches of a 36-footer and consulted designers, but “it never felt quite right,” says Johnstone. One designer, Nigel Irens, advised him to contact small-boat builders from the performance end. That led him to Holland Composites, which had built the foiling DNA A-Class catamaran he owns. The firm does high-end carbon work in architecture and builds one-off racing yachts. Yet it’s the DNA A-cats that netted Holland Composites such clients as Glenn Ashby, Jimmy Spithill, Nathan Outteridge, Dean Barker and grand master Loïck Peyron. Seeking to expand to larger boats, the firm agreed to design and build the G4 at its state-of-the art facility in Lelystad, Holland.

“It was tough to get under 3 tons of weight,” Johnstone says. But with carbon fiber epoxy prepreg laminate and Nomex honeycomb and Core-Cell foam core, the G4 structure turned out light and stiff.

“A-Class cats are small and nervous — balance is everything,” says Thijs Riemsdijk, managing partner at Holland Composites. “But their setup is scalable.”

The G4’s superstrong carbon daggerboards are a work of art and adjust from minus-3 to plus-7 degrees longitudinally. Steeper angles help get the boat on the foils, and flatter angles are used to reach top speed. Negative angles help “suck the board down,” which requires real beef if done manually.

Hydraulics substitute for elbow grease

“Foiling is one thing, getting there quite another,” says Riemsdijk’s colleague Sven Erik Janssen. “The G4 reaches takeoff speed in about 15 knots of breeze, but it still needs to sail well in less.” In non-foiling mode the L-shaped daggerboards and the T-shaped rudders help dampen the pitching motion. “So the boat sails surprisingly comfortable,” Janssen adds.

Watching the Gunboat crew, which included boatbuilder Mike Reardon and skipper Mark van Note, toil in the moderate breeze on Narragansett Bay was reminiscent of the America’s Cup television images. But Johnstone plans to offer versions of the boat with hydraulic controls for sheets, traveler and boards. “The idea is to make it pushbutton so a couple can really handle the boat to get the best performance from it,” he says. “As we are currently set up, it needs five to sail well. That’s too many.”

He says a small genset will provide the electricity for the hydraulics. He hopes to save weight with less deck hardware and the ability to sail with fewer crew. The system will include automatic safety releases for sheets and daggerboards to depower the boat before a situation becomes critical.

So who are the best candidates to go for a G4? “Sportboat or small catamaran sailors, or the Farr 40, Melges 32, Melges 24 types who want something they can race long distance or use for cruising in coastal waters,” Johnstone says. “On 600-milers, the G4 has first-to-finish potential, but if you leave Newport on Friday afternoon, you can get to Martha’s Vineyard before sunset. That’s 54 miles in two and a half hours of sailing — after work. And when you put the awning up, you have a pretty living space in the cockpit.”

It’s an appealing concept, no doubt, if it weren’t for a price tag that’s close to $1 million. So despite the sexiness of a foiling cat with a galley, head and standing headroom, it’s still a boat for a relatively narrow niche. But clients who are in a position to spend this kind of cash on foiling and glamping will turn heads and receive calls from long-lost friends who want a goose-bump infusion at 30-plus knots. Not to mention listening to a soundtrack that’ll make throttle jockeys green with envy.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.