This boat is solid as an (igneous) rock - Soundings Online

This boat is solid as an (igneous) rock

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Unless you closely follow single-handed offshore racing or you are an Austrophile, you’ve probably never heard of Norbert Sedlacek. And why would you? He’s not a superstar in the mold of the French legends Eric Tabarly, Loick Peyron, Michel Desjoyeaux, Vincent Riou or the new young god, François Gabart.

Norbert Sedlacek sea-trials Fipofix, a 16-foot prototype built from volcanic fibers.

Heck, he could walk into almost any bar in his native Austria and remain incognito. Over there, iconic status is reserved for those who risk their hide by hurtling down steep mountains on skis or kick a round shape into a rectangular one.

Sedlacek does neither, but that does not mean he wanted to remain obscure (www.norbertsedlacek.at). In 1996, friends and family watched in horror as he decided to ditch his cozy job at the Vienna public transport agency, where he piloted a streetcar. (It probably should have been named Desire.) It paid the bills, but “going in a circle all day,” as he once was quoted, was woefully short on excitement.

So he resolved to trade the cockpit of a trolley for that of a sailboat, turning his hobby into a career. (Good luck, Norbert. You’re nuts.) But detraction is a potent fuel for an obsessed sailor. First, he circumnavigated from 1996 to 1998 on a homespun 26-footer. That was still a circle, but it took him to new places — on his time, on his dime and at his own risk. Freedom never tasted so sweet. He started and finished in Grado, Italy, a beach town on the northern Adriatic that’s about as exciting as driving a streetcar on the same route all day.

His next move was a notch up on the risk-reward scale with a 54-footer he helped build for a solo trip around the Antarctic in 2000-01, starting and ending in Cape Town, South Africa. It was yet another circle but a wild one. It took 93 days to complete, spawned a book and a film, and helped Sedlacek increase his street cred as a single-hander, which eventually opened the door to the Vendee Globe, the Mount Everest of single-handed races around the world. (Sedlacek’s career trajectory remotely resembled that of Bruce Schwab, who came from humble beginnings to finish the 2004-05 Vendee Globe in 109 days, still the fastest time by a U.S. sailor in this race.)

Sedlacek polished many doorknobs and worked his butt off to avail himself of a ride for that same edition of the Vendee. But with limited resources, he ended up with a jalopy that developed serious keel problems and derailed his bid in Cape Town. Against all odds, he came back in 2008-09 with the same ride, this time gussied up and renamed Nauticsport-Kapsch.

He nursed it around the planet with tenacity and luck to cross the finish line in Les Sables d’Olonne in 11th place after 126 days at sea. On paper, that was dead last, but he was feted like a hero by the French, who love a Tail End Charlie as much as they love a winner. Like the guy who rolls down the Champs-Élysées in Paris to claim last place in the Tour de France, Sedlacek bore the lantern rouge, but at least he finished. That was more than 19 others could say in this very tough contest. He’d done the greatest circle of them all, and it ended in a personal triumph. But he wasn’t done.

From rocks to fibers

Sedlacek laminates the volcanic fibers on the hull of Fipofix.

I recently caught up with him at the humongous boat show in Düsseldorf, Germany, where he gave talks about his latest project, which dovetails with his Vendee experience. Well, sort of. This time, he is trying to prove that it makes technical and commercial sense to build ocean racing boats from … rocks. Actually, igneous rock, such as basalt, which is plentiful in the Earth’s crust but is also on the moon, Mars, Venus and Jupiter. During volcanic eruptions, it oozes to the surface as hot lava before cooling and solidifying.

So Norbert, why build a boat from basalt? “Why not? Who wouldn’t want a boat that’s fireproof?” he shoots back in jest. “As composites get more specialized and expensive, a search has been going on for new fibers that are strong, light and cost-efficient. Volcanic fibers aren’t new; the Russians have been using them in the arms industry. Car manufacturers are experimenting with them for fire protection in the engine compartment and in shock absorbers.”

What’s new is the patented technology that Sedlacek co- developed under the brand name Fipofix, which stands for fiber positioning fixation (fipofix.com). The majority stakeholder in the company is Kapsch, an Austrian telecommunications and logistics firm that also supported his second Vendee Globe campaign. Sedlacek and Marion Koch, his partner in life and in another venture, Yacht Construction Consulting, hold 20 percent.

How does it work? Rocks of different origins are ground up into a powder and blended to a formula for consistent weight and quality. Then they are made molten at heats of 1,400 to 1,800 C (2,500 to 3,200 F), reversing part of the volcanic process, and pulled into fibers that have desirable properties for composite construction. Volcanic fibers, Sedlacek says, can be used either by themselves or blended with others, such as glass, carbon or aramid. The company won’t divulge the secret sauce of the process except to say that it uses a multi-axis positioning machine that produces unidirectional fabrics.

A little yellow yacht

It is not nearly as insane as it sounds, and to demonstrate that the idea has merit, Sedlacek built an ocean racer that uncannily resembles an Open 60 but is only about a quarter of the size. Fipofix is a canary yellow Open 16, complete with twin rudders, canting keel, daggerboard, four forestays with three roller furling headsails and a bowsprit (open16.com).

“It’s our proof of concept,” Sedlacek says after he has finished his talk and pulled a couple of Nespressos to sustain the jetlagged correspondent’s attention span and his own frantic pace. Last November, after sea trials, he set out from his beloved Les Sables to sail across the Atlantic to New York in the boat, which is barely 2 feet longer than a Laser. It was “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” — and then some.

Soon after the start, heavy winds, mountainous seas and a gaggle of technical problems forced him to divert to Gijon in northern Spain, where repairs were made. The delay forced him to hand the helm to his son Harald, who set out a few weeks later to complete the crossing, heading for St. Augustine, Fla., instead of New York. Aside from the obvious challenges of sailing a small vessel across a big ocean, it’s also a Houdini act that lasts 4,500 miles because there’s about as much cabin space as in a small bedroom closet. Minus headroom, of course.

Sedlacek and his mates at Fipofix are gung-ho about volcanic fibers because of their advantages, which include easy application, hydrophobic and acid-proof properties, and the fact that they’re not irritating to the skin like other composite materials. Allegedly they are also fully recyclable because the high melting point allows volcanic fibers to be separated from other materials during incineration.

The downsides are the energy requirements for melting rock and the fibers’ innate brittleness, which makes them subject to loss of strength if conventionally woven, sewn, stapled or glued. Therefore, Sedlacek is keen to point out that the Fipofix procedure avoids damaging filaments, which is why volcanic fibers now can be turned into strong, stiff and highly impact-resistant fabrics. And that’s why Fipofix pitches them as a viable and cost-effective alternative to known composite materials, not just for boatbuilding but also for wind turbines, fishing gear and surfboards.

“We can blend volcanic fibers with nearly any other fiber of the customer’s choice,” Sedlacek says — for use in crash boxes, chain plates and rudderstocks, and as reinforcements to bulkheads and keelsons. “They can be used on most core materials and in conjunction with most resins,” he notes, adding that “volcanic fibers are stronger and lighter than fiberglass and offer more longevity.” Comparing both materials pound for pound, there’s still a premium of 30 to 40 percent for volcanic fibers, according to company estimates.

Hoping to change the game

So is there a revolution brewing in composite materials that promises better performance and more affordability? The Austrians like to think so and hope to build an Open 60 and/or a larger cruising yacht with this technology. But much will depend on how their little yellow yacht holds up as it slogs across the Atlantic with the inventor’s son at the helm.

“Can’t wait to reach the trades,” Harald said via satellite phone in early February, two weeks into his journey. “Everything on board is wet. For two weeks I’ve been in my survival suit, and I have to steer Fipofix by hand since the autopilot and some instruments quit their service.”

No word about structural issues, which is good news because he does not carry a life raft. The boat is expected in St. Augustine in late March, but that’s just halftime; in May the plan calls for the return trip to Les Sables, where this adventure started and where his father enjoyed his biggest triumph as a finisher of the Vendee Globe.

It would be a remarkable coup for Harald and the folks at Fipofix but especially for Norbert, who’d again defy long odds. Building boats from fibers that come from rocks and can be recycled would be another circle. But with this one he’d turn the sailing world on its head, just as sailing turned his world upside-down.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

April 2014 issue