Perhaps the most “cutting-edge” sailboat I ever met was in a marina in southern Spain in the early 1990s, not long after the Soviet Union fell apart. It was a Russian boat, a quintamaran, a five-hulled monster with a central main hull and four amas that looked something like a massive missile-bearing spider. The recently de-Sovietized crew, just arrived from a Russian naval base on the Black Sea, was very proud of her and whispered behind their hands that she had lots of secret Soviet military technology aboard.
Their brash confidence was based on a conceit that more hulls must always make for a better sailboat. As in: if catamarans and trimarans are faster than monohulls, then a quintamaran must be faster still. Those of us who gathered on the pontoon to gawk at this oddity were too polite to point out the obvious—that at least two of the five hulls on this boat were just dead weight. We also now had a much clearer idea of why the Soviet Union was doomed to collapse.
There has been a similar conceit at work in the last few cycles of the America’s Cup—that multihulls must always make for more exciting racing than monohulls. Yet informal polls of the sailing public reveal that a large majority of those who follow the Cup would rather see monohulls racing.
Not at all coincidentally, the newly triumphant Cup defenders, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, have just confirmed as the deadline for this column approaches that the next Cup competition will be sailed in single-hulled boats. But there’s a twist! The new boats, like the catamarans that preceded them in AC35, will carry foils.
Having recently researched and written a bit on the subject of foiling monohulls (The New Frontier, April 2017), I can tell you this truly is the cutting-edge of sailboat design. The number of monohull designs carrying foils has very recently metastasized, from IMOCA Open 60s running in the Vendée Globe, to the new Figaro 3 one-design class, to the latest super-complicated no-holds-barred Mini 6.50 prototypes, to user-friendly daysailers, to luxurious performance cruisers. And though it is clear that foils can make single-hulled sailboats faster, and can also increase comfort and stability aboard, there is no consensus at all on how they are really best utilized.
Aficionados often like to declaim that the America’s Cup should be a hotbed for new design ideas, but in fact, this rarely happens. Ironically, the most fertile period of Cup innovation in living memory was probably during the era of the 12-Meters, when the world’s brightest yacht designers labored for decades over how to exploit an antique design rule to make go-fast racers. The results were entertainingly sporadic. We had spectacular failures (remember the ill-fated Mariner, with her abruptly squared-off back end, which prompted Ted Turner to complain to Brit Chance that even turds are tapered?) and also breakthrough successes, like the wing-keeled Australia II that changed Cup history.
But given a carefully crafted design rule, the America’s Cup might now play an important role in the development of yacht design by accelerating our exploration of the vast terra incognita of the foiling monohull. I’ve seen some chatter online about the next generation of Cup boats being IMOCA knock-offs or perhaps oversized Moths, but I’ll be surprised, and disappointed, if the new boats are simply derivative. Hopefully, the new rule will allow designers to exercise their imaginations, and we’ll be treated to some intellectual combat as well as some interesting racing.
Another thing I’m hoping is that foiling monohulls will bring back some of the more traditional aspects of America’s Cup racing. Assuming the new AC boats are large enough to need ballast, it seems likely they won’t always be flying on their foils, as the last generations of cats did, and such arcane maneuvers as sail changes, etc., may once again become de rigueur. Add in the new nationality rule the Kiwis have sworn to impose, and we might end up with the unlikeliest Cup competition of all: one that most sailors are actually interested in.
Ed Note: For the latest on the protocol for the upcoming 36th America’s Cup, visit sailmagazine.com/racing