Skip to main content

The outer limits of sailing

After decades of trial and error, the French hydrofoiler l’Hydroptère has reached its record-setting stride

After decades of trial and error, the French hydrofoiler l’Hydroptère has reached its record-setting stride

A boat that skims across waves like a giant albatross has set two world speed records sailing — or flying — measured courses in the breezy North Atlantic off Lorient, France.

L’Hydroptère, the 18-meter (60-foot) French hydrofoiler, posted an average speed of 44.81 knots over 500 meters and 41.69 knots over a nautical mile April 7 in 25-knot winds and flat seas. Those speeds eclipse the 10-year-old record of 42.12 knots set by the catamaran Technique Advances in Class D (sailboats with more than 300 square meters of sail) and boardsailor Bjorn Dunkerbeck’s overall nautical-mile record of 41.14 knots set last year. With the records ratified by the World Sailing Speed Record Council, l’Hydroptère is the world’s fastest sailboat.

For 45-year-old Alain Thibault, l’Hydroptère’s indefatigable skipper, the records are the first fruits of a life’s work. Thibault has spent 20 years designing, building, breaking, redesigning and rebuilding hydrofoil trimarans that “fly” on three wing-like foils. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” says the sailor of his two-decade quest to build a big hydrofoiler to sail across oceans at record speeds.

L’Hydroptère’s two main foils, 6.5 meters each and angled inward, are mounted alongside pods at the end of carbon and titanium crossbeams on both sides of the main hull. A third, shorter foil — an inverted T — is aft and doubles as a rudder.

L’Hydroptère starts out sailing like a trimaran, but at about 12 knots it begins to lift out of the water on its foils and “flies” 7 to 10 feet above the surface with just the foils in the water. During trials in January it reached a speed of 47.2 knots, just shy of the overall 500-meter record of 48.7 knots, set by Finian Maynard in April 2005 on a sailboard. L’Hydroptère’s crewmembers believe their hydrofoiler can break 50 knots, the speed sailor’s Everest.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if l’Hydroptère was the first to break the mythical 50-knot barrier,” says Thibault confidently.

Thibault sails l’Hydroptère with a joystick, which adjusts fore-and-aft trim by changing the angle of a horizontal elevator on the aft foil. Lateral stability is achieved using ballast. He says the foils act like wings on an airplane. Moving through the water, they generate a difference in pressure between the wing’s underside and topside. This difference in pressure translates into an upward force that lifts the boat out of the water so it flies. L’Hydroptère is able to achieve these high speeds because its hull isn’t in the water creating drag.

Stung repeatedly by breakdowns over the years, Thibault believes l’Hydroptère has been strengthened and its design refined so that it finally is ready to challenge some distance records: the 24-hour speed mark and a trans-Atlantic. Yes, l’Hydroptère will be coming to New York — though when, Thibault isn’t sure.

“Since 1987 I have been preparing to cross oceans, and today the boat seems ready, too,” he says. He doesn’t anticipate many more modifications. “It seems now to have both reliability and performance.”

Major improvements include the carbon-and-titanium crossbeams, pods on the crossbeams for better stability in rough seas, and “shock absorbers” — nitrogen-filled pistons that cushion the vessel and keep the load on its foils below 28 tons. Fabricated at the French factory that builds the enormous Airbus aircraft, the pistons are similar to ones used to reduce load on the Airbus’ wings. Thibault also is designing a “maxi-l’Hydroptère” to challenge the round-the-world sailing speed record, and is building a 12-meter version of it as a research platform for developing more hydrofoilers.

L’Hydroptère, derived from the Greek word meaning “marine wing,” was decades in the making. From the beginning its designers envisioned a bluewater racer melding marine and aeronautical engineering. French sailing icon Eric Taberly started experimenting with foil catamaran models in 1976 with help from aeronautical engineer Alain de Bergh and Francois Lefaudeux, an engineer with the French Navy Shipyards. In 1985 Taberly passed the baton to Thibault, who assembled a team of engineers and negotiated partnerships with the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, builder of the Airbus; shipbuilder ALSTOM and its Chantiers d’Atlantique shipyard; and France’s NationalCenter for Space Research to carry the project forward.

The team developed two 1/15-scale models in 1987, and two years later tested a 6-meter model that carried a pilot. In 1991 Thibault reported that the 6-meter was “unstable in roll, zigzagging, pitching, nothing works.” With ongoing backing from Taberly, the team continued to trial and test the model, on the water and in tanks and wind tunnels, modifying it along the way. They launched the first full-scale prototype in 1994. It reached 39.7 knots on its first sail, but in 1995 a crossbeam broke on a run between Lorient and Belle-Île, France. In 1998 a metal fitting attaching the foil to the beam broke, causing the starboard foil to fall off and sending the design team back to the drawing boards — again. In 2002, after 10 English Channel crossings, Thibault thought l’Hydroptère was ready to race and joined Tracy Edwards’ Maiden II in challenging the Round Britain and Ireland speed record. But again disaster struck when a beam broke.

In summer 2005 Thibault was ready to cross the Atlantic from Cadiz, France, to San Salvador, Bahamas, but just a few days into the voyage l’Hydroptère damaged a connecting arm on one of the crossbeams in a collision with submerged debris. Then it was dismasted in a 75-knot tropical storm while docked in the Canary Islands for repairs.

Back to the drawing boards, Thibault rebuilt l’Hydroptère and relaunched her in the summer of 2006, with a taller and more aerodynamic 28-meter carbon-fiber mast, more sail area (400 square meters), trampolines made of lightweight Spectra, a slightly longer boom, and pods on the crossbeams to help the boat sail though rough seas. His new goal: break the 500-meter and nautical-mile speed records, which he has done.

Thibault says the technological challenge all along has been to build a light boat — about 6.5 tons — that’s capable of withstanding enormous loads. The boat carries more than 100 sensors that measure load and report to a computer, which sounds an alarm when loads become perilously high.

Still, he says, the helmsman’s expertise remains a decisive factor. “L’Hydroptère operates in a stable and smooth manner,” he says. “The sensors that prevent it from going too far aren’t enough, because in the end — faced with the unknown — it is the man who makes the final decision, not the electronics,” he says. “We’ve made a few mistakes, but these are precisely what help us progress.”

Undaunted, the Frenchman appears to be reaching his stride in designing a record-breaking, oceangoing hydrofoiler sailboat. In spring 2006 he announced a new partnership with Swiss investors Thierry and Adrien Lombard, Patrick Firmenich and Alexandre Schnieter to build the lab boat and the maxi hydrofoiler, with technical help from the Federal Polytechnical University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and boatbuilder Bertrand Cardis’ Decision S.A., which has built America’s Cup boats.

“Together we’ve dreamt up the ultimate boat, one that would go around the world in 40 days,” he says. However, he says his team still is looking at the financial feasibility of that project.

After years of false starts, restarts and new starts, Thibault is confident that he is on the right track but not foolish enough to think that it will be all smooth sailing ahead — no unwelcome surprises. “L’Hydroptère is an avant-garde project very close in spirit, approach and difficulties to projects of the early days of aviation,” he says.