Photo © Paul Larsen

“Imagine spending three years of your life sitting on this boat’s potential, watching the kites and L’Hydroptere and knowing in your bones that your boat has this in it.”
-Paul Larsen

Lets get the obvious out of the way – what Paul Larsen and the Vestas SailRocket team just did in Namibia was special just for the sake of the numbers alone. The actual speed of their 65 knot run is still being assessed by the Water Sailing Speed Record Council, but the report from the team is a peak speed in excess of 68 knots over one second, and 65.45 for 500 meters. No one goes that fast. Only a few years back 50 knots was supposed to be a big deal, and now Paul Larsen is pushing 70? To be sure records are made to be broken, but shattering them the way SailRocket did on Walvis Bay is frankly unheard of. Crossbow made some serious breakthroughs in the early 70s, Macquarie Innovation was the first non kite or wind surfer to get through the 50 knot barrier, and Hydroptere was an impressive achievement if ever there was one. But 68 knots? Really? That is, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. It is to speed sailing what Chuck Yeager was to air speed when he first broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1: unbelievable because nobody does that. It is supposed to be impossible.

However while the raw numbers are staggering that isn’t the real reason why SailRocket is so special. The numbers are the biggest part of the story to be sure, but there is more to it. The really impressive thing about the SailRocket team is that they stuck with it. Paul Larsen has been running this racket for 11 years. Malcolm Barnsley has been at it for 13. That is nearly a quarter of Paul’s life that he has given to this project. Even more for Malcolm. The only one who has exhibited that kind of dedication is Macquarie’s Tim Daddo, who held the record for 11 years as part of the Yellow Pages Endeavor team before he, along with Simon McKeon and Lindsay Cunningham, broke the 50 knot barrier for the first time. That level of dedication is something that other sailors can only respect, but it is even more impressive when considering how far SailRocket has come in the decade plus of work.

When the Vesta’s team first showed up with SailRocket I it wasn’t exactly a smashing success. The boat was certainly fast, but there was nothing particularly breakthrough about it. The concept of removing the overturning moment was not new. In fact it was first conceptualized by Bernard Smith in his book “The 40 Knot Sailboat” published in 1963. Aligning the force vector of the foil with the force vector of the rig is actually along the lines of what the kite boards do now, except if they could the would cant their boards in the opposite direction. SailRocket I had a nice foil that they didn’t have, but the boat really didn’t do much. It was famous for one spectacular crash (see below), but other than that they weren’t seeing the results.

Photo © Helena Darvelid/SailRocket

The fact that the SailRocket guys even built another boat after such a disaster is incredible. Most other programs would have simply concluded that the boat wasn’t going to get them there and walked away. One has to assume that Vestas came through for them in a big way but, again, the idea had been tried and abandoned by people before. It hadn’t worked then and it didn’t seem to be working now. However as Paul put it they “knew there was truth at the core of it,” so they came back with SailRocket II.

The concept of the second boat was still mostly the same. The pilot’s pod was moved forward on top of the foil thus taking stability out of the equation, but overall the boat was pretty similar. Then they put a fence on the foil and the whole thing just went berserk. Breaking a record by one knot is a big deal. Breaking it by 15? That is outside of the realm of comprehension. It’s the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen. At a certain point one has to wonder “where does it stop?” Now that they have removed stability from the equation and have a foil that delays cavitation to such a high speed the idea of limits is becoming a very abstract concept. The kite boarders can only go so fast because a human being can only pull so hard. That limit doesn’t exist for SailRocket. In fact one has to wonder which ones do.

Yet the numbers are not the truly impressive part. The fact that Paul and Malcolm stuck with the idea for so long, that they were willing to keep hitting their heads against the wall sorting out all the engineering intricacies, is why they got the result that they did. Once again the idea wasn’t new, but the simple truth is that no one had worked this hard at it. Other people had tried it and walked away. The guys at SailRocket, through pure will power, simply outlasted them. “So many people talk about these things and then never follow through,” said Larsen. “I was determined that that wasn’t going to be the case.” The key word in there is determined. Skill, vision and intelligence are all key components to any project. But anyone who has ever built a boat knows that getting everything right takes a long long time. And when trying to build one as fast as SailRocket it takes even longer. The smarts and the expertise help, but without the will and determination to see the project through it would never have happened. Guys who stick with something for so long and work so hard to get it right deserve their big day, and in the end the SailRocket team got what they deserved.

By Willy Clark