The Sailing Revolution is now – be part of it!

James CloseSailing Tech, Thoughts

In part 2 of our exploration of the Sailing Revolution, James looks in more detail at some of the evolutionary steps that have brought us to this point. If you’d like to catch-up with the first part of this series of article you can find it here. We believe that the Sailing Revolution is now – be part of it!

Lessons From Aviation

The invention of the jet engine was a massive catalyst for a revolution in aircraft design throughout the 50s and 60s. most of the cutting edge aircraft we think of today are still from this era. The SR71 Blackbird, the B2 Bomber and Concorde were revolutionary and nothing has come along since that has outperformed them. That is over 50 years with no real change in what is technically possible in aircraft design.

Creative and forward thinking aircraft designers, aerodynamicists and engineers who wanted the opportunity to develop the latest thing, and have free reign to try bold new things apparently turned to Formula One. This was, and still is, seen as the cutting edge of what is possible. The aircraft industry, quite rightly, has a vast amount of regulation and vigorous testing regimes to keep us all safe. The result is that components can take 10 years to go from initial design to production.

Where as in the world of F1, products are designed tested and built in the fastest time possible. It’s almost as if the teams are in a constant state of war with each other! They take risks, but in order to be successful they have the best brains, the best facilities and the best organisation to balance those risks with reliability. The result is the highest engineering standards and the latest thinking. But as the technology became ever more extreme, the rules of F1 have been changed. They restrict what the engineers can do, pushing them into ever tighter corners with limited opportunity to express their creativity.

The Pinnacle

I believe it is now SAILING that represents the pinnacle of unrestricted creative technological development in the world of engineering. We are embarking on a new revolution in our sport which is seeing fundamental changes of what is technologically possible, thanks to the adoption of hydrofoils. Sailing is at the cutting edge of technical sports and provides an almost limitless playground for creative engineers to go and set their imagination free.

This goes against the popular perception of what sailing is. The general public’s image of sailing is traditional, slow, boring boats, old duffers in blazers and private gentleman’s clubs. The sport needs the media to take note and drag sailing away from this negative stereotype and enthuse people with how exciting and forward looking sailing really is. But that’s a story to be explored in the next part of this series.

Sailing is and always has been a hi-tech affair. The objective of the sport is to harness the power of the wind as efficiently as possible; the refinements, experimentation and development of boats to make them go faster has always happened. The first paddle canoes, Viking long boats, to Bristol Pilot Cutters, to an AC45. They all represented the best thinking and cutting edge design of the time.

Amazingly though, a Bristol Pilot Cutter from 100 years ago will tool around at similar speeds to a mainstream modern yacht. That represents a poor rate of development!

We look at the Bristol Pilot Cutter as a design that is traditional, classical and beautiful, which it is, but in their day they were the fastest sailing boats for their size and represented the cutting edge in technology.

We look at the Bristol Pilot Cutter as a design that is traditional, classical and beautiful, which it is, but in their day they were the fastest sailing boats for their size and represented the cutting edge in technology.

The Asymmetric revolution

In the 60s and 70s, catamarans represented the fastest way around a sailing racing course. The idea being that narrow hulls were faster, due to less drag. Monohulls have always been relatively slow affairs. This changed with the invention of the asymmetric spinnaker and lightweight carbon fibre 18ft Skiff boats developed by Frank Bethwaite and his son Julian. It was the first big revolution in sailing for a century. We saw significant performance gains by being able to break clear of the drag of the water by getting on to the plane.

This advancement happened in the mid 1990s, and it was In the 90s that I first started dinghy sailing. As a result of these new revolutionary craft, new asymmetric equipped boats came on the market such as the Topper ISO, the Laser 4000, the Laser 5000 and RS400. It sparked a boom in dinghy sailing and media interest. I remember the Ultra 30 race series being on TV. The Australian 18ft Skiffs were featured in advertising campaigns and channel 7 Australia, had televised their race series. They combined ground breaking onboard footage and great commentary, which really made the sport exciting to watch (check out the size of the head cam they had to wear!).


The RS400 was one of the first mainstream dinghies to adopt the asymmetric spinnaker.

But the momentum was soon lost and it seems that sailing has stagnated for a decade or so with people drifting away from the sport. This is most noticeable at my sailing club where very few young people coming in to the sport. The sailing mad enthusiasts from the 90s revolution are still here, but very few new faces. Could this be about to change? Hydrofoils are revolutionising sailing again, and I believe we are about to enter a new boom time. Boat building companies are designing and making new hydrofoil designs, that are aimed at club racers to give us the a chance to easily access hydrofoil technology. But what is the hydrofoil revolution?

The Hydrofoil Revolution

Hydrofoils have been around for a long time – over a hundred years – but have never really… “taken off”. They have mainly been on experimental craft. But one of note was the hobby tri-foiler a development of a speed record boat called “Longshot”. Designed by Greg Ketterman this actually went into production.

However, this design was never seriously adopted, it was just a fun machine for beam reach blasting, not racing around a course at all points of sail, and not good in light wind.

In the noughties, the International Moth class momentously allowed the development of hydrofoils. At the time there was a lot of discussion about changing the rules to allow the use of horizontal foils that could not be retracted through the hull and the impact of fundamentally changing the nature of the class. It was a prime test bed to experiment with hydro-foiling as it was the smallest, lightest dinghy class and a development class.

Since the rule change Moths have gone from being obscure, but interesting, to a major international class with ultra competitive racing fleets of over 100 at major regattas. It now represents a very elite part of dinghy sailing. But already we are seeing new designs that are production versions of these craft that have used the development in moths to iron out problems and now build reliable foiling machines for the general sailing community. (WAZSP, Nacra 17 and UFO – see end of post for details).

Alongside the monohull development with hydrofoils, catamarans were still fast and developing the rig. The C-Class catamaran has, since the 1970’s been leading the way in solid wing sail development. When ISAF decided to remove the Tornado catamaran from the Olympics, the focus turned away from the dated designs to the latest models. At this moment the America’s Cup allowed multihulls and drew in the talent from all the latest classes, multihulls and hydrofoils.

The result is a foiling multihull with solid wing sail which is now breaking new barriers in what is possible for sailing craft. Very quickly sailing is using foil technology to increase efficiency and improve speed. The IMOCA Open 60’s are using them to generate righting moment, to stop the boat tipping over, allowing them to carry more power from the wind. These are currently being tested on the hardest race on earth – sailing around the world, single handed, non-stop in the Vendee Globe.

Ride the Wave

We are now on a wave of development that could put sailing in front of the mainstream. Sailing is the cutting edge of technical sport, if we can get a mainstream acceptance and interest, sponsors will be keen to have a piece of the action, which will enable more British teams to enter the races.

You may argue that “I don’t want to go fast, speed isn’t everything, close tactical racing is what gives great competition”. I agree, and I don’t for one minute think that this is the end of traditional classes, you need to learn the “art” of sailing in these classes, but I think for sailing to stay relevant in the 21st Century and attract the next generation of sailors, media and audience it has to be sexy and fast and appealing, it has to have an exciting edge to draw people in.

As I said earlier, Sailing has always represented the latest in technological development, the sport WILL move on. Hydrofoils are beautiful, elegant, amaze people when they see them, engage people who ask questions, they smooth the ride – eliminating chop, they are quiet, they are efficient. It is the future of sailing.

I’ll explore the subject of media engagement in this sailing revolution in the next article. Included below are a number of classes that are leading the way in enabling this sailing revolution to become accessible to sailors all over the world.

The Nacra 17

The Olympic catamaran is now equipped with foils. As a one design they can insist that both the windward and leeward foil are down in the water all the time, which adds stability and makes foiling much easier to control. Opening it up to normal recreational sailors who have previous sailing experience.

The Waszp

This is very much modelled on the International Moth, but with many features which make it easier to live with and keep costs down. It will not be as fast as a Moth, but the idea is to make foiling attainable for your average club racer, and one design so it is not an arms race.


This design is designed to make foiling straight forward. Using a catamaran platform gives innate stability, and enables the foils to be retracted for pulling up on the beach. It is designed to come in at a price point that makes it the most affordable and straight forward foiling option.