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Foiling Multihulls Take Their Toll

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The aftermath of the tech2 SuperFoiler crash: note the lack of port rudder (right);   

The aftermath of the tech2 SuperFoiler crash: note the lack of port rudder (right);   

Although sailing has always been inherently dangerous, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that in addition to elevating boatspeeds, today’s foiling multihulls are also dramatically upping the level of risk. In the run-up to the 35th America’s Cup, regatta organizers were fond of making analogies to NASCAR and Formula 1 racing. However, let’s not forget the number of drivers who either died or were horribly injured in the early years of those two circuits—especially as danger appears to increasingly be a part of a number of multihull series’ marketing efforts.

Case in point: the inaugural regatta for the new SuperFoiler Grand Prix trimaran series down in Adelaide, Australia (superfoiler.com) was all about crashing and burning, with hapless crews hurtling around headstays at the end of their harnesses as they figured out just how fast their 26ft foiling tris would go.

“Today we were really trying to push the limits, and we certainly found them. We turned our flying boat into a submarine. We were lucky nobody got hurt,” said tech2’s skipper Luke Parkinson at one point during a practice day before the regatta even had a chance to start.

After that, on the first day of actual racing, Parkinson’s “machine” broke apart while it was doing around 30 knots, sending both the boat and crew flying. Again, no one was hurt, but you have to assume it’s only a matter of time till someone draws a short straw.

As for the full-foiling Olympic Nacra 17 class, the time for injuries is now.

First, there was the incident when US Sailing’s Bora Gulari lost part of three fingers after his boat pitch-poled last summer. Then in February, Danish sailor CP Lubeck required surgery on his leg after his trapeze hook reportedly broke, dropping him over the side where he was hit by his boat’s rudder—an incident disturbingly reminiscent of the 2015 accident in which French sailing legend Franck Cammas nearly lost his foot after he was struck by the rudder foil of his GC 32.

“I have got 30 stitches, so it is a big wound. But I was really lucky,” Lubeck said afterward. “I got a cut in one of the big arteries, so it was bleeding a lot when I was in the water, and it looked scary. The doctors have just closed the artery, so my leg will have to survive without that one, but it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Soon afterward, the Nacra 17 Class issued the following statement: “Rudder strikes are occurring too frequently to be called isolated incidents. Further, the consequences of a rudder strike are greater than typically found in other dinghy or standard catamaran sailing due to the fixed/locked nature of the rudders and the increased speed of the boat on foils.”

It went on to say it was focusing on the problem to such a degree that it was temporarily suspending all other engineering study requests by the class to the boat’s manufacturer. Fair enough. Hopefully, this will help.

Even so, it is almost certain the number of serious injuries sustained by sailors will continue to increase simply as a function of speed, which in turn should give sailors pause for thought.

A sequence of video stills shows the boat flying out of control: circled in Frame #3 are the transom and port rudder, which broke off precipitating the crash  

A sequence of video stills shows the boat flying out of control: circled in Frame #3 are the transom and port rudder, which broke off precipitating the crash  

Obviously, this would not make sailing the only sport in which competitors are routinely injured or even occasionally killed. Nor would it be the only form of blood sport out there—just look at boxing and the NFL. However, that hardly justifies automatically accepting the status quo.

Granted, boats have also been dropping rigs since time immemorial, and extreme designs have been foundering since the days of Britain’s plank-on-edge cutters. However, these kinds of accidents arguably came as part of a legitimate quest for boatspeed, not just to attract a bigger crowd.

With full-foiling, on the other hand, you get the impression the carnage—and resulting marketing possibilities—are part of the draw. Is this really where the racing community as a whole wants the sport to go? 

Photo courtesy of Andrea Francolini/Superfoiler; video stills courtesy of Superfoiler

April 2018

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