In Conversation with Nigel Irens and Paul Larsen- An article published for Ocean Racing in August 2011.
Is the public interest for long distance sailing records, and subsequently the involvement from their sponsors, about to enter an ice age? Have we not, over the past 20 years, been the witnesses of a golden age? Since the 24 hours record broken by Primagaz (540 miles at 22.45 knots in 1990) or the first Jules Verne Trophy in 79 days by Bruno Peyron in 93, records over the most prestigious ratified routes have nearly been improved by a factor of two. Interestingly, those performances have been achieved by scaling up and optimising solutions such as foiled-fitted multihulls which, some 25 years ago, became the norm the Formula 40 class. How much progress, if at all, can still be squeezed from those types of boats? This is the perspective, which we discussed in a recent conversation with racing multihull designer Nigel Irens and speed sailor Paul Larsen.
Ocean Racing: Talking about the Transatlantic record beaten by the Trimaran Banque Populaire V two years ago, navigator Marcel Von Triest talked about ‘a perfect weather system’ with a low pressure travelling at an ideal 30-35 knots straight down the rhumb line. This exceptional occurrence allowed the crew to sail on one single tack all the way from New York to the Lizzard. Would a faster boat actually have been faster? Similarly, despite sailing extremely hard a slightly faster boat, Thomas Coville could not beat Joyon solo round the world record earlier this year, and was effectively beaten by the weather. Is there much point in designing faster boats and experimenting with new concepts when, by the look of it, mother nature now seems to be dictating its theoretical limits?
Nigel: the North Atlantic record is still more accessible to a faster boat because you can wait for the right weather system and it is now fundamentally (like the 24 hours record) a ‘one-weather system course’ as opposed to the round the world, which is clearly not
Banque Populaire is very likely to take a few more records, including the Jules Verne, but what will be interesting is to see what happens after that. It may put a few records out of touch for a while. This doesn’t mean that improving them is impossible, but attempting to do so will become financially less viable. Any company that is investing in such projects has to take a look at the statistics and the realistic probability of taking and holding a record. Whatever concept you come up with after that for a faster boat, it is likely to be a lot more expensive as it will probably have to be bigger, so the risks are increasing exponentially for every Euro invested, and the chances of success may not be strong enough.
As far as solo records are concerned, when Ellen’s Trimaran (B&Q) was designed, it was conspicuous that the record was eminently beatable. This year, Coville had to sail an extra 2000 miles compared to Joyon for the same route. It seems unlikely that an accountant would put his money on a new project to beat Joyon who, it is now apparent, had unusually good luck with the weather. At the moment, I would say this record will probably stay, for a while… Knocking another 10 days or so off that record single-handed is not something that I see as feasible, armed only with what knowledge and experience that we have at our disposal today. It could be argued that a bigger boat – even if sailed relatively inefficiently by a lone sailor –could make a dent in Francis’ record, but I wouldn’t put money on it. Even though beating it would be a great achievement, I think that to beat it by a significant margin would require a ‘step-change’ in design and technology. You can’t ever say ‘Never’ about sailing records, but I think we need to go seriously back to the drawing board to create that step change. As I said earlier, the way to do that is, in my opinion, by working up new designs aimed at the shorter ‘single weather system’ challenges that we discussed, such as the Atlantic record
Paul: Absolutely. However, I don’t think it really matters if the record goes stagnant for a bit. It is actually quite a good thing because then it becomes slightly legendary. For instance, the 6 1/2 days across North Atlantic by Jet Services in 1990 became a myth and you start to make something real big out of it. I think it is nice if the records are not broken every year and they gain that status. They then become part of something that helps create a story and makes it worth going for it. Building a boat that would be obsolete the year after is a bit daunting!
Ocean Racing: The SailRocket project is at the other side of the spectrum in terms of experimenting with new ideas, compared to the more conservative approach favored for instance by Groupama 3 , Banque Populaire or IDEC. Should we look at the 500 metres record for solutions that will give ocean sailing records their ‘new golden age’?
Paul: We are in a big Laboratory down there in Walvis Bay (Namibia), trying out some new concepts. I like the purity of speed sailing where you can tell conclusively in the end what works and what doesn’t. One day though, I would like to build a big boat and I am very aware that you can’t propose a wacky idea and hope to get the funding and the support for it. You need to show a lot of credibility and hopefully quite a strong story, with a track record of developing a concept in iterations. There are concepts out there that are worth investing for long distance sailing records, but at the same time I watch very closely the way more traditional design such as Cats or Tris are evolving.
For an offshore boat you would have to design against the weather systems you expect to sail within. The 24 hours record is really interesting as you could pick up a fast moving weather system that could give you a really long runway or, in our case, you could bi-sect a weather system at different angles as our style of boat likes tighter sailing angles than the current large mulithulls. We might be looking for an entirely different system, as our boat polars are quite broad. For the round the world, two things impressed me, firstly when Orange 2 kept the hammer down in rough conditions due to her very high freeboard, sticking with the system for a much longer period than boats of the previous generation, and secondly, what Groupama 3 could do in light and messy conditions, being able to punch upwind through the chop, actually sailing across a ridge, and literally over-taking a system. Pushing hard in a variety of conditions rather that just relying on ideal conditions is key for records spanning over multiple weather systems.
Nigel: You are right Paul, there is a big difference between the round the world record and ‘one-system’ records, such as, for instance, the Transatlantic or the 24 hours. If things don’t work out in the latter you can go back and restart later, which you can’t on a long-haul voyage such as the Jules Verne. I would say if you want to prove a new concept with a faster boat, put your money on the Atlantic which has far more scope for an experimental boat than the round the world which is bound to be very weather dominated. The risk of failure due to technical problems is also less acute on a Transat attempt compared that of a Jules Verne circumnavigation.
Ocean Racing: Being launch in 1994, the Hydroptère is not exactly a new concept. What should we make of its recent surge in speed sailing (it claimed the 500 metres record three years ago with a run at 51.36 knots), and its current offshore ambitions?
Paul: I sailed on the Hydroptère around the Isle of Wight and the thing ploughed in a lot in rough seas. But I was impressed on how well it does upwind in flat water, pointing 50 degrees and doing 17 – 18 knots compared to similar speeds with 45 degrees pointing angle for a 60ft ORMA Trimaran. The current maxis though, would be faster by a long shot upwind in choppy water. Based on this experience, it makes me question the concept of inclined foils slicing through the waves with such an alarming amount of ventilation and mess. The bigger version with the Hydroptère maxi should minimize this a lot. Foil technology is also still in its very early days though with no concept—curved, inclined, diamond shape or T-Shape foils—clearly imposing itself.
Ocean Racing: How far do we think we are from seeing concepts such as the Hydroptère or the SailRocket breaking records such as the 24 hours or Transatlantic?
Nigel: there is every chance that a Hydroptère type boat would do this but as Paul said, not for the round the world where you will, by definition, need to handle bad weather and the need to keep going fast even upwind.
Paul: I think there is a big potential breakthrough with ventilated foils and this could really open new horizons. When we can get them working over 60 knots, then you can write a basic formula to reach speeds much higher than that and how you can use that offshore would be quite interesting. You create a path for people to follow. Hopefully we can prove a concept conclusively and therefore give it credibility. How other people pick it up and use it will be interesting to see.
Nigel: there is every reason to try something more adventurous, partly to get a return on the money that you invest. In many ways, it is unremarkable to build another Trimaran, which may need to be even bigger than the previous ones. We have a concept which we revisit from time to time, based on a very long, slender main hull. It has a single cross-arm and derives righting moment from a foil to leeward, some water ballast to windward and (when overpowered) some buoyancy to leeward. This concept would be best developed on ‘one-weather-system’ type records. We have to move forward and the North Atlantic route is the most credible proving ground for this.
Paul: I like the idea of getting more for less in terms of how you design, build and campaign a project and the big trimarans are getting so much prohibitive from that perspective. The amount of tooling that you need to make those things, their actual size, the materials that they absolutely have to be made of, the highly loaded engineering structures with picks of bending moments…
I would look at more simple designs to do the same thing and at this stage I keep looking back at Proas and I found them very hard to fault conceptually. They got a bad name following their ban from the Route du Rhum in 1982, but even then some did pretty well. Although Proas take a little longer to tack, you would have to balance that minimum loss against the substantial gains that you would get over a long distance.
Interview by Alban James, correspondent in London