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Record-Breaking L’Hydroptere

How long does it take to get addicted to speed? Not long, aboard the foiling trimaran, l’Hydroptère DCNS. The big, French “water wing” holds the nautical-mile record at 50.17 knots and now has its sights set on a Los Angeles-Honolulu record.

How long does it take to get addicted to speed? Not long, aboard the foiling trimaran, l’Hydroptère DCNS. The big, French “water wing” holds the nautical-mile record at 50.17 knots and now has its sights set on a Los Angeles-Honolulu record.

On my day aboard in Southern California, we topped out at 38 knots. While I was driving, we saw 34 knots. Later, when we slowed to 22, I thought we had parked.

For years I’d been hearing about l’Hydroptère—its innovations, its failures, the occasional brilliant success—and it was a game-changer to have the thing actually in the United States, prepping for a record attempt on the transpacific course that I know so well. Also aboard was fellow American John Sangmeister, part of Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup-winning crew in Australia in 1987. John is the new owner of the maxi-tri Gitana 12, which has its own record prospects. But on this day, he kept breaking down with the giggles. Actually, it was both of us. No, it was all of us. Even the French pros who know l’Hydroptère well often find themselves succumbing to the sillygrins.

At 10 knots through the water, l’Hydroptère rises above it—a 12-knot breeze will suffice—and wetted surface resistance suddenly drops to a mere 21 square feet. The speed-build is instant, but it’s not a whiplash. It sneaks up on you, and the ride is a smooth one, even in a chop. Owner/skipper/visionary Alain Thébault calls it “riding a magic carpet 5 or 6 meters above the sea.”

Look ahead and l’Hydroptère is fairly gobbling up real estate. Look behind and there is a boiling wake such as you’ve never seen before. Doubling the wind speed is the norm. The long lifting foils are the most striking feature of l’Hydroptère, and a close look reveals massive cylinders braced between each pairing of foil and hull. For adjustment? No, the foils are fixed at 45 degrees. The cylinders are shock absorbers, loaded with nitrogen to absorb loads up to 32 tons.

What we have here is the fourth iteration of l’Hydroptère. There was no book on how to create such a machine. Instead, Thébault is writing the book as he goes. It is an astounding tale of perseverance that began with model testing on a pond at Versailles in 1984. Encouraged by the patron saint of French sailing, the late Éric Tabarly, Thébault launched a one-third scale model in 1987 and l’Hydroptère 1.0 in 1994.

So, how hard can this be? Consider that it took until 2009—15 long years—to arrive at a configuration that would set the 50.17-knot, one-mile record that also stood, briefly, as the 500 meter record, touching 56 knots in the process. And consider that the record run took place 10 months after they pitchpoled the thing in the Med—and jumped right back in the saddle. Did we mention there were many opportunities along the way to give up?

You can’t say “pitchpole” without saying pitch, a key factor in controlling any hydrofoil. As they set up shop in downtown Long Beach to prep for the Honolulu record, Thébault’s team was developing a new automatic pitch control system that employs an OCTANS inertial sensor to feed data to a processor programmed to react in real-time. It automatically trims, in toto, the large transom-mounted rudder-with-fixed-winglets. Team techie Jeff Mearing describes it as “the same system that is used in submarines and such, where you can’t tolerate delay.”

Beside each of l’Hydroptère’s steering wheels, port and starboard, there is a joystick for manual pitch control and—so the driver’s hands don’t have to leave the wheel—a “Jesus button” underfoot for hurry-up depowering. For a machine that is necessarily unstable, l’Hydroptère creates a compelling illusion of stability, at least at the speeds that I experienced. Above 45 knots, the boys tell me, “it’s different.” At 50 knots, there’s cavitation. Beyond—there be dragons.

I didn’t drive long enough to pose as an expert, but what I did do felt easy, and steering under sail at 34 knots is a personal (and SAIL Magazine) record that is likely to stand for a while. With the automatic pitch control contributing, there was occasionally the strange sensation that someone else was steering the boat. As for feel of the helm, there is zilch. Tacking is not snappy, and I don’t think we’d want to see it in a significant sea. But it was accomplished easily enough on my day aboard by rolling the jib, bringing the boat into the wind, and then sliding backward into the desired angle to the breeze. The other management fundamental that must not be overlooked comes in a turn from fast downwind to upwind. In this case, you first turn down and slow down—way down—unless you want to swim with the fishes.

Preparing for a shot at a record over a course of 2,225 miles on a combat vehicle such as l’Hydroptère means attending to certain creature comforts, and the team’s mission statement for the crossing included, “improvement of the very relative comfort onboard.” Said upgrades consist of 1) a soft thingie tossed on the cabin sole of the center hull, which is wide enough to sleep one person comfortably, or two people who are completely, utterly exhausted, and 2) a single-burner stove. That’s more than enough luxury for L’Hydroptère’s regular crew, including living legends Jean le Cam and Yves Parlier along with Thébault and co-skipper Jacques Vincent (veteran of eight circumnavigations and 29 transatlantics). Their No. 5 regular, skiing legend Luc Alphand, is fearless at the wheel.

The team’s goal is to shave a day off the Los Angeles-Honolulu record set in 2005 by Olivier de Kersauson with the giant catamaran Geronimo (ex-Playstation), which by comparison is a lumbering mastodon. De Kersauson’s time of 4 days, 19 hours, 31 minutes averaged 19.17 knots, an easy-enough target for a glitch-free l’Hydroptère.

Record attempts here use the Transpacific Yacht Race course to Diamond Head first sailed in 1906, with management at both ends by Transpac YC. Skirting the southern edge of the Pacific High Pressure Zone is the key to success on this route—staying in the tradewinds, probably adding extra miles to the south of the rhumbline to avoid the calms of the High.

It’s interesting to note that l’Hydroptère and those who may follow have a tremendous advantage over the schooners of old or even the “sleds” that will be back to race again as a fleet in the 2013 Transpac. Unlike the navigators of 1906, Thébault and company can not only “see” the Pacific High electronically, they have the speed to go isobar-hunting, adjusting their course to the north or south to optimize their track. It’s an advantage that all the big record-hunting multihulls have today, like the 130-foot maxi-tri Banque Populaire V when it set the current around-the-world record of 45 days at an average speed of 26 knots.

With my day drawing to a close, l’Hydroptère had time for a quick jaunt out to Catalina and back, and outbound I could see off to starboard the outline of Point Fermin, where Transpac starting lines are laid. I imagined the tension and exhilaration of Thébault and crew taking off with a couple thousand miles of bluewater ahead, felt the thrill of it, even as I also found myself imagining all the things that could go wrong.

In the end, though, would it really matter if something did? Thébault’s whole career has been a testament to determination, as expressed in the Winston Churchill line that he likes to quote: “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” It’s all a process, you see, and to Thébault, l’Hydroptère’s plan for a first ocean attempt is yet another beginning, with no loss of enthusiasm.

Ed note: Due to weather, the record attempt has been postponed. L'Hydroptere has been on San Francisco Bay since August, after beating up the coast with a crew of six. She will sail south again following the October 3-7 America's Cup World Series and be placed on the hard, pending the Pacific crossing season in 2013. Look for l'Hydroptere to begin sniffing the tradewinds for a departure date next June or July.

Photos by Kimball Livingston (top and middle); by Thomas Lesage (bottom)

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