It was the summer of 2013 and Aussie sailor Bill Macartney was in San Francisco for the 34th America’s Cup—the summer of “the Comeback” and the moment when the Cup officially took to the air thanks to the efforts of Emirates Team New Zealand.
“Seeing Team New Zealand come roaring round the top mark,” Macartney says, “I looked at it and thought, we gotta do something. We have to do something.”
Fair enough. A lot of people saw their worlds change in the course of that summer. Macartney, though, isn’t just any sailor. He also happens to be the ex-CEO of the 18-Foot Skiff Grand Prix of the 1990s, the iconic series of regattas featuring wildly over-canvased trapeze and outrigger-equipped three-man skiffs that paved the way for today’s stadium-style racing, including the America’s Cup, from which Macartney was now drawing his inspiration.
On top of that, he has a son, Jack, who’s not only his business partner but a veteran 18-footer skipper cut from much the same cloth as his Old Man. In other words, when Bill says, “We gotta do something,” it’s probably a good idea to pay attention.
Sure enough, fast forward to 2018, and that need to “do something” has not only become something real, it has resulted in one of the hottest new sailing circuits on the planet—the SuperFoiler Grand Prix, a five-regatta series that recently crisscrossed much of southern Australia before wrapping things up on Bill and Jack’s home waters of Sydney.
Central to the new series is the boat after which it’s named, the 26ft all-carbon SuperFoiler, a full-foiling trimaran, or “machine” in SuperFoiler Grand Prix parlance, that is as crazy-fast as it looks. Created by the cutting-edge multihull experts at California-based Morrelli & Melvin, the SuperFoiler is unlike anything the sailing community has ever seen before—a true flying boat with a central hull comprising nearly its entire length and a pair of almost vestigial looking amas.
Configured much like the AC72s and ACC50s used in Cup competition, the boat includes electronic push-button control of the L-shaped daggerboards and T-foil rudders via a series of four battery-powered electromechanical actuators that serves to adjust blade pitch/angle of attack. The geometric design of the daggerboards also incorporates what M&M describes as “passive-adaptive stability” as a function of vertical immersion. In other words, the amount of lift generated varies depending on how deep the angled portion of the board is in the water, thereby naturally smoothing out the ride, in theory at least—one of the keys to the success of these kinds of foils.
Other go-fast features include a wishbone-boomed main that, like the jib, is set right down along the central hull to create a power-enhancing end-plate effect; trapezes for all three crew, the same as aboard the 18-foot skiffs of old; and low-windage hulls that are also super-lightweight, so that the all-up weight of the boat comes in at a mere 770lb, creating a high power-to-weight ratio.
“It’s the sort of project that we love doing, something that’s never been done before,” says M&M principal Pete Melvin, a Tornado sailor who competed at the 1988 Olympics, of his office’s involvement in the effort.
Melvin adds that the aggressive design brief for the boat made it that much more of a challenge, in terms of getting all the systems to work together as they should. But then again, that’s what guys like Melvin live for.
As for the rest of the professional sailing community, it apparently couldn’t agree more, having “voted with its feet,” as it were, with all kind of pros clamouring to get into the action—so that the six crews taking part in the inaugural series read like a kind of who’s-who of top-flight sailing. These include Australian Olympians and America’s Cup winners Nathan Outteridge and Glen Ashby aboard Team Euroflex; Volvo Ocean Race winner and America’s Cup veteran Luke Parkinson at the helm of Team Tech2; America’s Cup veteran and two-time Extreme Sailing Series winner Paul Campbell-James at the helm of Team iD Intranet; 2016 World Match Racing Champion Phil Robertson of New Zealand at the helm of Record Point; and 2012 Olympic match-racing Silver medalist Olivia Price at the helm of Team Kleenmaid.
There’s even an American in the mix: 2013 World Match Racing Tour winner Dan Morris of Newport, Rhode Island, doing bow for Team Pavement.
“I first started talking to SuperFoiler in October 2016 after hearing that they wanted a female on board,” Price says. “I had taken a bit of time off competitive sailing and the SuperFoiler seemed like the perfect opportunity to really challenge myself and my sailing. Once I saw the design of the boat, I knew I couldn’t miss out on the chance to sail them.”
“The boats are really quite unique and have many traits of other classes all rolled into one,” Ashby says. “It’s really its own thing, and that’s cool because you have to teach yourself new skills as well as be able to draw on past experiences from all the other foiling and displacement boats that you have soaked in the past.”
Beyond that, the SuperFoiler concept also makes use of stadium-style venues designed to get fans as close to the action as possible, along with top-flight media coverage both on television and online.
As was the case with the America’s Cup in Bermuda, the courses are short, basically five- or seven-leg windward-leewards, designed to get the fleet around the track in around 20 minutes. With regard media coverage, it was the 18-Foot Skiff Grand Prix that in many ways wrote the book on how to present a sailing regatta on television. On-the-water commentators, helicopter-borne cameras and, of course, the now ubiquitous helmet cam were all technologies Macartney and company pioneered to help generate some of the most exciting sailing coverage the world has seen.
Suffice it to say the Macartneys are old hands at this kind of thing, and if it can be done, it will be done as they pull out all the stops to let race fans see and hear what it’s like managing the beast that is their new SuperFoiler.
Not surprisingly, the SuperFoiler is neither for newbies nor the faint of heart. Not only are speeds of 30 knots or more commonplace, but in contrast to the refined world of the America’s Cup—not to mention in true Aussie fashion—these boats are intended to be sailed in anything. Wind shifts, powerboat wakes, unexpected chop, the odd daysailer wandering out onto the track: well, good luck with that and welcome to SuperFoiling racing, mate!
Then there are those stubby little amas and that long, almost beak-like central hull. Granted, they’re feather-light and make it that much easier to achieve takeoff. But come off your foils too abruptly aboard a SuperFoiler and there’s also little if anything to catch you, to ease you back down into displacement mode as it were.
As a result, in the weeks leading up to first stop of the series in Adelaide, the YouTube world found itself discovering a whole new kind of wipeout video, as the new boats would abruptly nosedive at 30-plus knots and send their crews flying out on the end of their wires well past their headstays.
Even more dramatic was the celebrated Tech2 crash. Just as Parkinson and company were truly giving it the gas, the entire leeward transom and rudder broke free (reportedly as a result of damage sustained hooking a buoy earlier), sending boat and company flying in what was truly a YouTube moment for the ages. All good fun, of course, but let’s just hope no one gets seriously injured.
Still, the crews remained undaunted. Indeed, they seemed to truly relish the opportunity to take a first whack at the steep learning curve that is SuperFoiler sailing, like test pilots trying to make sense of how to operate a brand-new fighter jet.
“The SuperFoiler is a beautiful combination of foiling and trapezing,” Morris says. “It’s a combination that many people would not have expected. I love it for its responsiveness to how we move our weight, how we move the sails and how we move the foils. After leaving the 49er class, I have missed life on a trapeze wire. The SuperFoiler has filled that need and then some. The acceleration in puffs and the G’s we encounter in a well-executed foiling gybe make it feel more like a plane than a boat.”
“The boats are very different from an AC 50,” says Ashby. “However, many of the same principles of crew work, trimming and steering apply and are scalable. This is what makes the SuperFoiler a cool but challenging boat to sail. You get rewarded well for accuracy and good technique and doing manoeuvres well, which is sometimes very difficult. The boats are actually very hard to sail really well, so the gains and losses from poor or good decision making or boat handling get amplified.”
“It was frightening at first!” Price admits. “I hadn’t sailed a boat that was capable of going this fast before, but once I understood the boat a little more it was the best fun sailing I’d had in a long time. It’s quiet when you first get up on the foils, and then you realise it’s just you, your crew and the boat, and you kind of get into a really focused zone and not much else can get in your head.”
As for the actual racing, it has proved to be as relentless as the boats themselves, with quarter neither asked nor given—no surprise given the caliber of the sailors taking part. In terms of the overall standings, Outteridge and Ashby were clearly dominant, winning five of the six events on their way to the overall title, with tech2 taking second overall and Team Pavement third. However, the barebones results do little justice to the racing itself, which featured plenty of come-from-behind wins and dramatic passing and a truly extraordinary exhibition of pure boatspeed.
The inaugural series was also an especially fascinating one in that you could see the way the sailors were continuing to figure out the new boat and this new kind of sailing with every new race they competed in. Throughout the racing, for example, you could see instances in which the sailors were still struggling to figure out their tacks, trying desperately to stay up on their foils. This, in turn, meant any number of blown chances tactically. However, as the crews improve, the racing is only going to get that much better as well. Same thing with respect to dealing with things like powerboat wakes and shifting gears to accommodate the puffs and lulls. When the sailors have figured out how to truly master these boats, they will be a sight to behold.
“Racing the Superfoiler is very demanding physically and mentally,” Morris says. “The racing is similar to other fast boats like the 49er, 18ft Skiff and GC 32 in that it rewards accuracy in the details. For example, a boat in good breeze on the beat will be doing 22kn upwind and a boat out of the breeze, just meters away, may only be doing 14kn. The same good decisions, smooth boat-handling, accurate trim and anticipation of changes in the wind that are rewarded in other boats are rewarded in another order of magnitude in the SuperFoiler. Conversely, the price paid for mistakes is far greater as well, with lead changes of 100 meters or even a race-ending crash!”
“I think the tactics have certainly evolved during the series,” Campbell-James says. “After the initial apprehension and desire to keep clear of the other five machines the racing has engaged again, and we are just pushing it to the max at the moment. There is nothing more exhilarating than being out on the trap, three on the wire and seeing the horizon hurtle toward you.”
At press time, the class had yet to announce its plans moving forward, but it’s safe to say that when the fleets hits the starting line there will be more fans than ever to them do it. There was also talk of expanding the series so that it will be an international one. With respect to the possibility of these boats venturing out onto North American waters, all I can say is, “Let the show begin!”
For more on the class and the recently completed inaugural SuperFoiler Grand Prix, visit superfoiler.com; all photos in the story were courtesy of Andrea Francolini
MHS Summer 2018