Hydroptère 1 ©Guilain Grenier
Flying boat re-designed to break speed record
by Giles Broom
August 24, 2010 | 09:45
The Hydroptère sailing team, famous in the world of daredevil water sports, reveals the prototype of a new vessel designed to be the fastest long-haul sailboat in the world. At an unveiling ceremony in a Vaud shipyard, Swiss sponsor companies, accompanied by legendary skipper Alain Thébault christen the futuristic looking yacht with champagne.
It seems nothing leaves the Franco-Swiss Hydroptère speed sailing team satisfied.
The Hydroptère project was created to build the fastest sailboats on the planet and the mission reached a milestone on Monday with the unveiling of the latest flying catamaran at a shipyard on Lake Geneva.
Born in the 1980s from the vision of Eric Tabarly, a renown French sailor who competed twice in the Whitbread Round The World Race, and Alain Thébault, a veteran yacht racer from Brittany, the project is based in Lausanne and Brittany, with financial support from Swiss companies.
At the christening ceremony at the Décision SA shipyard in Ecublens, close to the campus of Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), Thébault briefed journalists and sprayed champagne over a 35-foot prototype vessel.
Given the spitting rain and gloomy skies on the day, Thébault reminded a crowd of journalists, technicians and sponsors that the team will rely on better weather in order to test the prototype, which is due its first dunking on Lake Geneva in early October.
The project founder, who will also skipper the craft, explained that the new boat is built for speed with the aim of taking off at intervals and flying through the air.
Thébault calls his latest craft the “Hydroptère.ch” referred to informally within the team by the name’s suffix – “point-ch.”
Two wing-like foils – the only parts of the boat to touch the water – are joined by a light framework and cargo netting, powered only by the wind driving sails on a towering mast.
Engineers have innovated a new system of lateral rudders and a second rear tail unit that can be raised by a new system to diminish water drag.
More than 40 sensors monitor continuously and translate the boat’s movements into data for performance analysis.
The ‘point-ch’ is a smaller version of the 65-foot trimaran Hydroptère 1 – a multi-hulled boat with a main hull and two outrigger hulls – which Thébault used in September last year to set the absolute speed record for sailboats at over 51 knots (95 kilometres per hour).
“L’Hydroptère is an extraordinary human and technological adventure and l’Hydroptère.ch follows the same principle,” said Thébault, whose record-breaking sprints and oceanic voyages have made him a legend amongst sailing enthusiasts.
“First on Lake Geneva, then in the Mediterranean and abroad, l’Hydroptère.ch should give answers to precise questions related to flight dynamics,” he said.
The team plans to use the prototype for research before building a larger craft, the Hydroptère Maxi, which the team will try to sail across the Pacific at the fastest average speed of any wind-powered boat.
It was Thébault’s childhood dream to create a boat that could fly. As a teenager he nurtured this concept with wooden models floated on canals.
Pictures shared with reporters at the ceremony show how the sailor developed the idea that the foils should act as de facto marine wings, providing a vertical thrust that lifts the boat’s hull from the water.
He realised a dream when in 2005 the 60-foot Hydroptère 1 crossed the English Channel faster than Blériot did by plane.
Now, the team is preparing to set new records and fend off challenges to its top-speed feat.
“For the world speed record you’ve got one UK team, Sailrocket . . . there is also a team in Australia trying to break it; you’ve also got kite surfers and wind surfers doing the same thing,” said mechanical engineer and team member Davy Moyon, speaking to Swisster at the ceremony.
For the 60-foot boat, “we changed everything that goes underwater,” to try to surpass 50 knots, said Moyon.
“For this boat, Point-ch, the purpose was a bit different, we are more into averaging better speed in as many conditions as possible.”
Building speed vessels looks to be an expensive business, although Thébault would not reveal the exact cost of his new prototype in response to questions at the ceremony.
L’Hydroptère is financed by corporate sponsors including the Geneva private banker and philanthropist, Thierry Lombard.
Lombard’s enthusiasm for the project stems in part from his own hobby of sailing.
“I used to be a sailor,” he told Swisster after he had finished snapping some personal pictures of the prototype and its crew.
“We have to try to move science a little bit ahead and have boats that fly instead of boats that are on the water,” said the banker, who was formerly a sailing instructor on Lake Geneva.
Co-sponsor Audemars Piguet, the watchmaker from La Vallée Joux in the Jura mountains, sent its chief executive, Philippe Merk, to help spray Lanson’s champagne over the new boat.
And EPFL, based down the road from the shipyard in Ecublens, also plays a key supporting role as “official scientific advisor” to the team, conducting studies around materials, aero-hydrodynamic behaviour and computer vision systems.
The Hydroptère team has other projects up its sleeve after the 35-footer has been tested.
Learning from new research conducted with the ‘point-ch’, the team will construct the ‘Maxi’ vessel to face the challenge of crossing the world’s largest ocean.