Sailing the Foiling Gunboat G4

Timbalero III was the talk of the town as she made her debut at Antigua Sailing Week, with good reason  
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Timbalero III was the talk of the town as she made her debut at Antigua Sailing Week, with good reason

I first spotted her as we headed back into Falmouth Harbour after the first day of racing in Antigua Sailing Week. I was on the deck of Alize, a 1987 Beneteau First 435E owned by my friend Bill Haynie, a sailing buddy from my Newport years, when we saw it screeching over the horizon—the bright orange hulls of Timbalero III, foiling across the water at breakneck speed. The new Gunboat G4 had been the talk of the docks since I got to Antigua a few days earlier; everyone was excited to see her sail, especially after the dramatic video of her capsize in St. Barths a week earlier had gone viral in the sailing world. Hell, the manager at the hotel where I was staying knew about the boat, as did the taxi cab driver that shuttled me down to the docks. So needless to say, I was excited that I was going to get a chance to sail her a few days later during Antigua Sailing Week’s mid-week lay day.
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I met Gunboat’s Peter Johnstone at the dock outside the Antigua Yacht Club around mid-day on Wednesday. He was wearing his G4 crew shirt, leaning back in a relaxed manner at the wheel of the fittingly sleek Pure Yacht inflatable that was serving as tender to Timbalero III during Sailing Week, looking more like a crew member for the G4 team than the company owner. On our way to meet the G4, Johnstone seemed to get flagged down from every side—a wave, a hello, a request for a chance to go sailing. At Sailing Week, Johnstone was the coolest kid in school, the kid with the new bike that everyone wants to ride. “She’s pretty slick,” he said nonchalantly as he waved to a passerby.

“We’re looking at the younger market,” Lauren Battaile, marketing manager for Gunboat, told me later as I settled in onboard. “Thirty-somethings that have done well for themselves in tech or finance and are looking for something a little different, something with a little more adrenaline.”

And if you’re looking for something with adrenaline, the G4 should be at the top of your list. This boat is an adrenaline machine. After we climbed aboard and stowed our gear, crash helmets and body armor were handed out (a first for me when it comes to boat testing), and we had the now-standard safety briefing, which was essentially “if we capsize, hang on to something.” Sailing the G4 with us was America’s Cup sailor and Antiguan local Shannon Falcone, who, having recently gotten his walking papers along with the rest of the Luna Rossa team, was spending the week being, as he described it, Gunboat’s “pitch-pole consultant.” “I went over nine times in the AC45s,” he said, “so I’m here to have fun, do some sailing, and let Peter know what I find, what can be done better. This is all about proof of concept. Now that we know it works, it will be refining the systems, pulling less ropes and pressing more buttons. The technology is out there, they’re not reinventing the wheel, we had it on the AC45s.”

While the mainsail system is currently hydraulic, operated by one of the coolest foot pedal systems I’ve seen, many of the other systems are still using ropes and winches—for now. After Sailing Week, the G4’s schedule was to head back to St Maarten and get ready for the sail home to Wanchese, North Carolina, where the boat will get some upgrades that will include installing hydraulic systems for the sails and daggerboards. (Johnstone agreed with Falcone’s assessment of “pull less rope, push more buttons.”) But regardless, hydraulics or no hydraulics, the G4 is an absolute thrill ride. In 12 to 15 knots of breeze we hit just north of 25 knots boatspeed. This thing can get two couples comfortably around the islands at speeds that were previously reserved for motor yachts. The helm is responsive and stable, and even though you’re going 20-plus knots it's never frightening because you feel like that’s how fast you’re supposed to be going. Riding on the G4 felt like the slowest fast ride ever—everything is so smooth and even as the foils slash through the waves.
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I look forward to catching up with Johnstone and the G4 in the Fall once she has gone in for her mid-season check up. As I heard repeated a few times during my time talking with the Gunboat team, their trip to the Caribbean was all about “proof of concept.” They wanted to show that the technology could work, that the speeds of foiling catamarans that captured the attention of the international sailing community during the 34th America’s Cup was not out of the reach of the every day sailor. A little fine-tuning here, a tweak there, and whether it’s screaming around the racecourse or on the dock, this boat will certainly be turning heads.

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