SAILING ON FOILS: Will the Latest Racing Technology Divide Our Sport?

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Foiling cats

I was just stoking the antique coal-fired bunkers in my brain getting ready to write something about foiling sailboats, when I got a query from a Red Bull flack asking if I could help get the word out about their Red Bull Foiling Generation competition. Which actually is a very cool program: they are inviting young racing sailors born between 1996-99 to apply for special training with Olympic gold medalists to learn how to sail and compete in foiling 18-foot Flying Phantom catamarans (see image up top) in two Red Bull events to be held in Newport from October 11-23. Individuals or teams of two have until July 15 to submit an application to participate. (Follow this link here to throw your hat in the ring.)

Think about that for a moment. This is a major commercial sponsor of top-flight sporting events around the world (including Formula One racing and MotoGP) spending precious coin not only to promote racing on foils, but more particularly to create a talent pool of foiling sailors here in the United States, a nation where sponsorship for any sort of sailing has historically been very hard to come by. This, as much as anything else, makes it clear how hydrofoiling technology is transforming sailboat racing.

We’ve already seen how foiling catamarans have consumed the America’s Cup, and now we’re just beginning to see it moving into offshore monohull racing. The very latest generation of IMOCA 60s now sport lifting foils to increase speed, and they will be subjected to their first very serious test when they set out in November to race around the world in the Vendée Globe.

You can check out these videos to see foils in action on a new Open 60, Gitana, and for an explanation of how they work in this context:

It is truly amazing stuff.

But I think the foiling phenomenon also marks out the beginning of a major divide in the sport of sailing as a whole. Historically, for example, racing technology has often helped transform the way cruisers sail their boats. Construction materials and techniques, sailing hardware, cordage, and sails–all these things have been greatly refined and improved all across the sport due to innovations originally pioneered on racing boats. But like canting keels before them, except to an even greater degree, hydrofoils seem too fiddly, too technical, and especially too prone to failure and damage to ever become very useful on cruising boats.

G4 cat

Gunboat’s G4 foiling cat was hailed as a “racer-cruiser” but really this was a bit disingenuous. The boat has almost zero accommodations

F4 cat

This is the new F4 foiling cat, being developed by DNA/Holland Composites without Gunboat’s participation. It’s a bit larger than the G4 (46 feet instead of 40) and is being marketed as a one-design offshore racer, with no mention of cruising

Ultimately I wonder if the divide created by foils will segregate not only the sorts of boats we sail, but also the ranks of sailors themselves. I have long believed that racing’s bid to attract new talent by emphasizing speed and excitement was doomed to fail because that which makes sailing inherently attractive to people, be they racers or cruisers, is more elemental. But it may be that foiling will change that. It isn’t hard to imagine a generation of racing sailors who come to the sport through foiling exactly because it is so fast and exciting, and who will have zero interest in sailing without foils.

Foiling Moth

A foiling International Moth in action. If you first learned to sail on a boat like this, would you ever be happy on a boat that couldn’t fly?

Not that this is bad thing. Not in the least. Rather it is encouraging that sailing is getting so large that it can encompass wholly separate realms. But for some it may seem discouraging to see a sport they love transformed into something they cannot recognize.

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3 Responses
  1. Blake Redding

    I think foiling will become a standard part of the sailing options. I haven’t tried it yet, but would really like to. But it does seem quite fiddly, expensive and hi-tech. It reminds me a bit of hotshot skiffs – which are also fiddly, tippy, expensive – and really fun when you get it right. As for me, I love sailing for the huge variety of experiences available – from the exhiliration of a screaming broad reach to the tranquility of anchoring in the Greek isles. There is definitely room for foilers.

  2. Charlie

    @Blake: I agree wholeheartedly. There is room for foilers, and they are good for the sport. The technology and the physics are fascinating!

  3. Pieter D Brown

    I don’t think “foiling” is a “divide” at all – it’s an “addition” – giving racers & cruisers a new dimension to the sport of sailing, from small-boat mono-hull club racing, to cruising for that far horizon at an av. 5 knots with family & friends, to flying barely in contact with the medium called ‘water’ – the common-denominator, one way or the other, for us all.

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