Any time I put a helmet on I become hyper-aware of every step I take. Precaution means there’s an alternative to a happy ending. On one of my last rides of the 2018 summer season, the helmet was mandatory, as was the life jacket.
A new, foiling trimaran called the TF10 was the platform. On a squally day in mid-September off Newport, Rhode Island, I watched as Lars Guck, a multihull champion many times over, played the control buttons for four foils like he was guiding a jet’s autopilot computer. The “Foil Rake Interface” screen on the deck read: leeward daggerboard 2.5, windward daggerboard 1.5., leeward rudder 2.6, windward rudder -0.4. We were hanging out at around 20 knots downwind, with the central, rudderless main hull and both amas well clear of the water, comfortably kicked to weather just a few degrees with just the slight hum of the running backstays to let us know we were flying.
The jerky takeoff on the TF10 initially had me on all fours looking for a handhold on the thin sheet of carbon trampoline that kept me from falling into the water whistling by 5ft below. But then we were off, just ripping along as Guck would occasionally depress a button, which would fire off an electric motor that would, in turn, smoothly adjust the rake of a foil. As the floating boat slowly pitched and then rose, he would press another button and say something to the helmsperson along the lines of: “Settle down, keep it just like this.”
Most amazing of all was that fact that here it was, just five years after Jimmy Spithill and Dean Barker showed the world a new flight path for sailing in the 2013 America’s Cup, and I was most definitely not on an experimental Cup boat. Rather, I was on one of the nearly dozen production foilers out there that have resulted from the loophole in the AC72 rule that allowed those big cats to fly and hit 50-plus knots. This rapid development and the growing acceptance of a radical new way to sail has injected a fever into sailing akin to the early Windsurfer and Hobie Cat crazes of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The development of the TF10 and its ilk can mean only one thing: foiling is here to stay.
Don’t call it a revolution
The TF10, designed by Pete Melvin, the author of the AC72 rule, was created in 2018 for the express purpose of allowing a relatively average sailor to do what until recently was only possible for the world’s elite—competitive racing aboard a large foiler—and what I learned on that wet afternoon on Narragansett Bay is that foiling has now broken the barrier of pro sailing mastery and begun its intrusion into mainstream sailing in earnest. This was real—and it worked, something that was made abundantly clear as owner Malcolm Gefter, now in his mid-70s, steered the boat under complete control, even when the breeze bumped into the mid-20s.
Beyond that, it’s no secret why hydrofoils are now showing up mostly in multihulls. A wide platform screams form stability and with two daggerboards and two rudders, controlling lift and righting moment is easy compared to balancing on a single main foil in a monohull. The consequences of falling off the foils are also usually far less severe, with a typically soft crash dampened by two or three hulls versus a capsize aboard a monohull.
The TF10 and newly launched Eagle Class 53 catamaran have also solved, in their own way, controlled flight for large production foilers. Sensor technology and the use of all four foils helps hit the magic algorithm that allows the pilot to just steer straight and fly. The original Cup boats, designed to a rule with limits on foil-control systems, needed precise steering and intense sail trimming. Today, though, thanks to the millions spent on development and training in the Cup and developmental classes such as the A-Class catamaran, flying big boats is becoming doable even for average sailors.
“People are afraid when they first get on the TF10,” says Gefter, who along with a group of fellow New York Yacht Club members brought the original design brief for the boat to Morelli & Melvin. “But you don’t have to be afraid of the boat. If you make a mistake, nothing dramatic will happen. That’s the concept of the trimaran.”
And indeed, nothing especially dramatic did happen when we went sailing last fall, even when the breeze hit 25 knots. A strict one-design with only three sails, we reefed the hanked-on jib by lowering it and rolling up the bottom. After that, we did the same with the main in preparation for foiling upwind. Downwind, even when we got out of sync and buried the windward hull, the boat just gradually slowed, waiting for the pilot to steer us back up onto the foils again.
This kind of performance is especially impressive given that, for the bigger multihulls in particular, first to flight hasn’t always been so easy. The GC32, for example, was the first big production foiler (built in 2014), and it is still used in the Extreme sailing series. However, it remains hard to control, and RedBull now runs its Foiling Generation, a world youth series, using the smaller 18ft Flying Phantom. Similarly, the Nacra 17, the mixed-crew Olympic catamaran, was also upgraded with a foiling package in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Games. However, it too has limited foil adjustments, does most of its foiling downwind and remains a challenge to sail.
At the cruising end of the spectrum, the first bite of the apple was taken by Gunboat’s G4. Painted hot orange and inspired by the full-foiling A-Class, this “weekender” was designed to take avant-garde sailors on 100-mile day trips. Alas, the G4’s reputation took a big hit when it was filmed arcing into the blue Caribbean Sea and dramatically turned turtle after getting too powered up
“It’s hard to stay on the foils,” Gefter admits. “All four foils are at a different attitude and the effect on each one is nonlinear. We have electronic controls, so there are no physical demands. But it’s technical. We’ve created an algorithm for the settings from non-foiling, to foiling and all the way to windward heel foiling and 24 knots.”
Still, technology aside, the TF10 remains impressive. “I’ve taken out 15 people this season,” Gefter says. “All 15 were able to foil continually. You bear away, pop up on the foils, and sail for miles.”
Flying for All
Of course, with a $600,000 price tag, the TF10 and other big foilers are not within the budget of the average racing and recreational sailor. However, a growing number smaller production foilers are now changing the landscape of sailing for the rest of us as well.
In point of fact, the monohull Moth class was the first to create a production foiler with the Mach 2. The Waszp soon followed, a simplified, budget version (at $11,000, half the price of a Mach 2) that has sold several hundred since its launch in 2016. A tippy, athletic craft, though, the Waszp has since been followed by small fleet of multihull foilers that area a far better fit for the more mainstream, non-racing, beach and bay crowd.
Take the UFO, launched in 2017, which has a central foil system like a Moth, but on a mini catamaran platform. It also has an unstayed rig and retractable foils that allow it to beach-start and has been an immediate hit with small kids, as it allows them to fly double-handed.
The brain-child of David Clark, the UFO is a carefully executed solution to all the problems of foiling craft, including its production and marketing. Shipping weight, for example, was carefully scrutinized. Similarly, rig size was tested across a wide range of sailors and materials kept economical but light enough to fly at 15-20 knots.
Having raced a Moth, I already had a pretty good idea what I was doing when given the opportunity to try the boat out at the 2016 Foiling Week in Newport. However, it soon became apparent these skills wouldn’t be necessary. After some simple instruction I was soon ripping along in 15 knots of breeze, high above the chop: reach off, ease the sheet to keep heeling to weather, start foiling, trim to keep the same angle of heel, and enjoy. A bit later, I lost my balance in a turn and the boat came crashing down. But as is the case with the TF10, the virtues of more than one hull saved me, and I stayed on my feet.
And again, herein lies one of the big advantages to multihull foiling: eliminating the penalty for mistakes. When you first start doing 20-plus knots, whether it be on a $7,000 UFO or a half-million dollar TF10, you’re inevitably going to worry about capsizing or getting catapulted into something hard and sharp. However, neither of those things is likely to happen on the latest generation of multihull foilers—so much so that I now see the precaution of a helmet as just that, a precaution to make me feel better, as opposed to a life-or-death necessity.
Foiling to the ends of the Earth
As for the future, if you don’t think foiling is fully a part of the sailing landscape yet, just wait a year. Or better yet, just look around, as there are already plenty of designs to choose from, including such European efforts as the French-built Befoil catamaran, or the Flying Mantis, the White Formula Whisper Cat and the F101, all from the UK. “There is not a new [multihull] model if it’s not foiling,” says Luca Rizzotti, founder of the global forum Foiling Week. “I have spoken with many manufacturers this fall. They don’t think about doing a normal catamaran any more.”
And we’re not just taking racing here: catamarans are also the fastest growing segment of the cruising sailboat universe—especially at the higher-performance end of the spectrum—and it’s not only speed that is driving the trend toward foiling in this space but stability, since foiling allows cruising cats to not only go faster, but in more control.
For now, we don’t yet know exactly how this will shape the way people travel. Maybe sailors will start going even farther afield. Maybe remote islands will have more visitors, or marinas will grow and widen their slips to fit more multihulls. Either way, the demand exists.
Finally, closer to home, a growing community of designers, athletes and students are also now using this new element in windsports to make sailing more accessible.
Again, the UFO is allowing ever-younger sailors to fly safely around a harbor. Similarly, the F101 trimaran, which includes both a jib and main, has been flown by Paralympians and with three people onboard. Like the UFO, it is light and can be easily launched from a beach. Same thing with the Flying Mantus, which sails equally well in either foiling or displacement mode, thus removing yet another element in the “fear factor” that has long been inherent in foiling.
Reduced sheet loads and lower crew weight requirements are also now creating a platform that not only eliminates many barriers to entry but levels the playing field, even at the top end of the sport, in terms of things like size, age and gender. Flying silently above the water at high speeds is not only super sexy, but with these smaller boats, anyone can do it—and do it equally well.
Bottom line: we live in one of the most dynamic times sailing has ever experienced, as is clear to see with all the marquee events of the sport—from the Olympics to the Vendée Globe—now showcasing foiling craft. Is foiling for everyone? Not necessarily. But it certainly can be for those who can afford those same cruising multihulls with foils we will likely see in the next few years. I also see boats like the UFO being a real game changer in terms of sailing’s popularity with people in general, given they can cost less than a Laser. And indeed, Clark makes a point of holding UFO demos not just at yacht clubs and in front of experienced racers, but at parks and beaches.
Remember those ads from the ‘70s and ‘80s with hundreds of Hobie Cats and Windsurfers lining the shore of some lake we never heard of? I believe today’s small foilers have a real shot at recreating those same heady scenes, in which life is one big Mountain Dew commercial. And who knows? Things may someday even become so stable and mainstream you can forget the helmet.
Daedalus Yachts daedalusyachts.com
Eagle 53/Fast Forward Composites
Flying Mantis flyingmantis.uk/the-boat/
Flying Phantom phantom-international.com/sailing-1/
DNA TF10 tf10class.com
Whisper Catamaran whisperboatsusa.com
MHS Winter 2018