Paul Larsen, Vestas Sailrocket project leader and pilot, discussed the latest - including the 65+ knot run on Walvis Bay.
So let's get this down here before I start forgetting stuff...
Last Saturday looked like it was going to be a strong day from the moment it popped onto the long range Windguru forecast. Amongst a bunch of fluctuating average days it barely deviated as it approached. We began to focus on it as being the day when we would go all out. Almost annoyingly, the day before piped up and blew just enough to force us to fully gear up and head towards speed-spot. We stopped just short of launching the boat. It was annoying as it was strong enough to force us to react but we really wanted to focus on the next day. You have to be reactive as for whatever reason, the next day may not deliver. Every opportunity has to be seized this year and we had already had two remarkable days on average forecasts.
That night we had dinner back at the crew house. I was about to raise a glass to the following day and the last day of living in the 50's... but decided not to tempt fate. We had an early night.
It was already blowing from the SW in the morning. This combined with the strong forecast spoke to us that at long last, after over six weeks, we were going to get some good, old-school, industrial Walvis Bay wind.
Our focus was to smash through a 60 knot average. After our previous record runs there had been a heap of interviews and discussions about what it all represents. people doing articles on Hydroptere, Luderitz and Rob and Alex were all suddenly diverted to that 'other team' in Walvis Bay. Everyone wanted to know what we thought she could do. My guess was a little over 62 knots average.
Although our 59.38 knot run was obviously hugely satisfying for us, I wasn't comfortable to leave it at that. I sincerely felt that it was still within striking distance of the kiters. They could have an epic day at one of the venues and now they had all the motivation in the world to pull the stops out. I could just sense that they were buzzing like a hungry bunch of knife fighters whose leader had just been shot. They would want revenge and although they would figure they were on the offensive... we knew that the gun had plenty more bullets. Today we would spend them.
I was nervous about the potential of the day. It could all end a number of ways. There are crash scenarios for this boat that I'm pretty sure would be lethal. If the forward beam stay failed, the failure mode would be pretty worst case. A snap roll of the fuselage to leeward. Considering that it is traveling sideways at 25 degrees and would be combined with a forward pod nose-dive... it would be violent. We had spent the previous few days pulling the boat apart and checking everything. Alex put dormant safety lines in key areas and serviced the wing. Ben had installed padding around the cockpit edging to protect my head. The crash harness and quick release was all serviced. The boat was good.
As I lay awake in bed that morning I considered writing a little note that I hoped would never be read and stashing it somewhere. Too morbid. Just get it right Larsen.
We had set all the previous records in relatively mild conditions and were yet to sail in average conditions over 26 knots. What would a boat with unlimited stability that is demonstrating its ability to sail at around 2.4 X wind speed do in a 30+ knot gust?
Yeah it was going to be a big day alright. There was a sense of definite energy in the wind. I had told a few close friends that this was going to be it. If ever they wanted to see this boat do its stuff... then this was it. We made sure that our good luck team member Wally was on side. I also made sure that our friend and guru RC model plane flyer Bernt was there. He had a plane which could fly at 110kmh with a GoPro2 on it. It was going to be windy so it was going to be interesting to see what he could do with it as he was literally flying against VSR2's apparent wind. We had more to organise than on most days. I spent the morning fitting a streamlined nose cone to the stub-beam that holds the main foil. Malcolm calculated that it could be good for 0.25 to 0.4 of a knot. That could make the difference (in a way it did). Things like that are free speed. 'Givens'.
The wind continued to build. The forecast was playing out. I fully believed that it was going to 'over develop' and build to a strength beyond what we could safely handle. I also felt that this might be the first and last big day of this record attempt. I knew what I had to do today. As the day built I began to feel that we had to get out there early. It could have built too quick and left us with the horrible realisation that we missed it. With the big crew it took a lot longer to get ready. We had to send over two RIB loads of people to speed-spot. By the time it was our turn to get towed over it was already over 25 knots.
On the way I sat in the cockpit and pulled my cap low over my eyes. I leaned back against the new side padding that Ben had installed and just relaxed. As we entered the end of the magical mile that is speed spot I began checking the conditions out in detail. I watch the kiters and windsurfers and check out what sails they have up, how easily they waterstart etc etc.
Many come past the boat as it is being towed and we swap quick expressions to discuss the wind and such. I got Alex to pull into the timing hut where I ran up and did a quick wind check.
Conditions were good.... not great but worth pushing forward with. We already had gusts up to 27 but dips to 22. The direction was good and things were only going to get stronger. I felt pretty edgey. Big things happen on days like this. It was great to see so many friends over on this normally desolate landscape.
Close friends who knew what all this meant to us. Malcolm and George were here. Malcolm has never seen either boat go over 50 knots yet! He would have front row seats to see something special today.
I ran back down to the boat and we quickly took it up to the top of the course. I had a quick chat to the boys to remind them to stay cool if it goes wrong. They would be a long way behind and would arrive well after the crash. I could be anywhere as they approach and in any shape. I don't wear a life jacket as I don't want to be stuck inside an upturned hull. Maybe I should.
If my drysuit gets torn then it could be a bad thing. I drifted out of the upturned cockpit of VSR1 unconscious once. I'm still not sure how. I sit much deeper in this boat. I reminded them once more of the harness I was wearing and its mechanism... but mostly just to stay calm and turn off any emotion. No drama, just cool heads. I was nervous but in an excited way. I knew what I had to do and I also believed that I was about to have the ride of my life.
The wing went up cleanly and all the little rigging extras were removed. We had a clean ship. Everything was good. I had removed all the comms. to Alex i.e. ripped them off my helmet and thrown them in the piss after getting lost in the French language menu whilst trying to connect! Hand signals work. The release from the RIB went pretty well and I don't remember too many issues with getting over the initial 'hump'.
The run was pretty good. It was definitely fast although it is amazing how quickly you become accustomed to the speed. The leeward pod was flying high and I couldn't get it down as the adjustment was at its limits. It was a good run... but not a great run. When the RIB pulled alongside and escorted me into the beach I quickly lifted the rear hatch and checked the numbers... 63.17 peak and 58.4 something average. No good. I tried to radio the group of people making the long walk down and tell them not to bother as we were going to turn around and make another run ASAP. The radios weren't working for some reason.
More electronics had bitten the dust. Only the ICOM M-71 radios seem to handle it out there (no we aren't sponsored... that's how it is). Ben came down to film and I was pretty sharp with them for not monitoring the radio. 'Breathe it out and turn it off' Lars... calm down, make everyone feel cool and move on. This was not the run we wanted... but it did serve to remove any nerves we might have had. VSR2 had sailed beautifully and was handling the day easily.
I was confident I could sail her full noise. We were into the day now and focused on simply getting it right. We returned to the top of the course and got set up for run two. This one did not start so well. It was messy. The leeward float sunk and the wing extension dug into a wave. I need to fully stall the craft in order to get it to bear away from the wind. I oversheet the wing to windward to force this. Sort of like backwinding a head sail or pulling the mainsheet traveller fully to windward. In this full stalled state the boat rolls hard to leeward like a conventional craft.
In strong conditions and the larger waves that accompany them... this becomes a problem. I managed to pop the leeward float up by sheeting the wing out and getting the flow attached, the trouble with this is that it rounds the boat up towards the wind as the drive vector point way aft of the main foil. I had full left lock dialled on with the small rudder in order to stop us going head to wind. This is one of VSR2's weak points at low speed. She continued to slowly turn into the wind and I sheeted the wing back in to try and prevent it. The boat accelerated onto the plane in this state. She continued to pick up speed heading at a tight angle towards the beach. The rudder was on full lock for a bear away which meant it was fully stalled and hence fully side ventilated. I sheeted on harder to help it come away but it wasn't happening fast enough. The beach was close and the only thing to do was to ease the wing a little and dial the rudder quickly straight to get flow attached.
This had the initial effect of turning us back in towards the beach. we were probably doing around 30-35 knots. The flow attached but we were getting into shallow water. I was strangely calm about it. I sheeted in again and turned hard away down the beach. The turn was too quick and the apparent wind struggled to come around with me i.e. I did not really accelerate into the turn down wind. The wing stalled. I checked the swirling leeward tell-tales. VSR2 began to de-accelerate so I eased the wing again to attach flow. I also turned her a little more in towards the beach. She slowly got hooked in and then BAM... she was off again.
She accelerated straight up to over 61 knots but I knew it was a dud run. Only 54. something average. Everyone commented about how close in I had come at the start. On reflection it was a bit marginal but on the other hand also a sign that I was comfortable with handling the boat in tight situations.
Now I was bloody minded and set to take from this day what we had come for.
We went back up for run three. Ben and Alex were their usual fast and efficient selves. The three of us can basically rig and run this boat. Wally was holding the bow and ready to be an extra set of hands if we needed them.
The day felt stronger. I called Helena on the now returned comms and got another wind check. She assured me that the peak gust was still only 31 knots but that the wind was now pegged pretty solid in the middle high 20's. She called out a long string of numbers off the Tacktick weather station, 27, 28, 28, 28 , 29, 29 , 29, 28, 28, 27, 28 etc. This was it. The course looked great and things were perfect. I didn't want to have to do another run. The release from the RIB was the worst yet. VSR2 stuffed the leeward wing in hard. The whole thing was out of sight underwater. The leeward pod was well under and even the beam end was in the water. I waited for something to break.
There is not much I can do here but lightly ease the wing, turn the small rudder hard to windward and wait for the boat to lazily swing into the wind. The boys in the RIB were right beside me also watching this unfold. Juergen Geiger was right behind me waiting to follow me down the course on his kite board. Juergen who gave me a free room in his B+B and made it easy for me to come down to Walvis when we were broke and desperate to find a home for the project. Perfect that he was here now.
VSR2 slowly swung into the wind whilst I muttered under my breath. The minute the wind attaches to the inclined rig she starts generating lift. The core stability concept kicks in and the leeward pod rips up nice and high on the water. I had heard a 'pop' out there and figured that something was broken and the run was going to have to be abandoned. When the wing attached we accelerated pretty cleanly.
I checked and double checked for damage, I expected things to be hanging in the water. They weren't. Tough boat. I had severed the outboard flap control line before this run in order to back it off as much as I could. This was an effort to get the leeward side of the boat down onto the water to reduce the heeling and increase the thrust. Sort of the reverse of flying a catamaran hull too high. The flap was just bouncing around as the pod jumped off the chop. We were actually pretty well placed course-wise and the rudder had attached flow. I sheeted in hard. Back into it then. The rear skeg was kicked up hard. It locks into a wedge but is not cleated. I turned onto the course in good shape.
We were using all the course this time. We hit it hard and the acceleration was rapid. We went straight into the 60's. The pod was instantly high and I sheeted in as hard as I could to try and get it down. I was now adding a pre-fix to 'fast'. It was now 'This is f*****g fast'. That word is there for moments like this. I believe it ceases to be swearing.
Vestas Sailrocket 2 was alive and baring her base ventilated claws. We were in close and conditions were perfect. After 11 years, all the plates were spinning. The boat gave a hard kick in towards the beach that I had to steer into. I later found out that the rear skeg had dropped down and was dragging behind giving a fixed steering input. the boat settled into a new balance. I thought it was something else related to the messy start up. I still thought something might be broken... but stuff it. I couldn't see it and whatever it was it wasn't slowing us down. We were hitting new highs.
The timing hut was gone in an instant. I was vaguely aware of Malcolm and George standing on the shore in the shallows. It was just solid, hard speed now. I felt like the boat had forgotten about me and was now just showing itself what it could do. I was a passenger. The leeward pod continued to climb and climb.
Sheeting on wouldn't put it down any more as it just generated speed and hence more apparent. I had no option but to sheet out and bring it all back under control. I ended up way down the end of the beach in the shallows. We survived. That had to be it... that was hard core fast. The boys came down and we got the boat ashore. Ben once again made the long walk down. I didn't check the numbers. I knew it was 60 +. The longer I leave it the more I dial down my emotions. We told everyone to stay up at the hut. We would lower the wing and come up to them. As we got towed up there Alex was looking back at me in the cockpit to make sure I wasn't taking a peak. Everyone was pretty excited when we arrived. We hung VSR2 off a line behind the anchored RIB and walked up to the small group at the old timing huts.
I had the small GT-31 GPS with me. When everyone was there I began to play out a scene I had had in my head for years. The GPS scrolls through two numbers. One is the peak speed and the other is the average over 18 seconds... way more than is necessary for a 500m course at our new speeds. I finally looked at the numbers.
The first number I saw was 65.37 knots. This was real good. This peak would definitely deliver a 60+ knot run. It was already easily a personal best. The next number nearly sat me on my arse. 67.74knots. An electric rush shot through me. It took me a while to realise what I was really looking at. This means that 65.37 is the average. I looked at the expectant faces... and then checked again. I told them that I would write the numbers down backwards in the sand.
First the peak. 4....7....7....6. Everyone exploded. This was epic... next came the average.
BOOM! The magic had happened. Vestas Sailrocket 2 had truly arrived. Even Juergen dropped to his knees. This was big. Sailing would never be the same.
We hugged, we cried, we laughed, we swore and yelled. I'm nearly crying now. We were all just so damned happy.
The wind continued to build and sand was absolutely everywhere. It was as if even the wind wanted to come and celebrate. Conditions were already over the top. We had nailed it exactly right. I told Helena to share the love via Twitter as I knew how many people were watching this and wanting to know about it. We ran everyone back in two trips. The boat always looked good but now she looked stunning. We towed her home the long way around the shallows. It was now over 35 knots and rough. It was a long, slow, rough and joyous trip home. The day was golden. All the way we tried to comprehend what this all meant. We wondered about the reactions of all the people getting this news in different corners of the world. We shook our heads and swore a lot... even the women. There were more hands than usual to help us ashore.
What a pleasure it was to put this boat away in one piece. Apart from one handling error that lead to a broken beam, this boat has done incredibly well from her first sail. It has proven to be a super-tough, efficient and reliable boat. It's even practical. It feels like a 60 knot+ Hobie cat. Three people can launch and sail this thing even in windy conditions. There is a refined process to it... but still, that's all it takes.
We grabbed the numbers off the Trimble and started to go through the incredible footage. The aerial stuff off the RC plane was awesome. Bernt did a brilliant job. Bottles of Red Heart Rum appeared as if by magic and the festivities began. 'Feeling Good' by Muse was the song blaring out. I was just so damned happy. That was what we were talking about. We went out there to get it right and we succeeded. I was so proud of the team and how they performed. Everyone nailed it. The footage is great, the stills are great,... the day was just... great. The other days were fantastic. They were milestones... but today we owned speed sailing. Everything else would have to change. A point now live on the chart way up 'there' that future competitors and designers need to aspire towards. Everyone has to think differently. The performance of the kite boarders did this. In many respects they should feel proud. Everyone who has held this record should feel some level of ownership of that day.
What a day.
So now, looking back, I know we could go faster. We maxxed her out on that day with those settings but with a little bit of tweaking she could go quicker. The run was a little loose, the back skeg was dragging a lot (you can see it on the aerial footage) and the pod was way too high (due to new levels of apparent wind). The wing sections were also slightly out of alignment under these new loads. With a little bit of re-configuring I know we could get over 70 knots with what we have. I don't think anyone would doubt it. We haven't seen any further signs of cavitation and we are still well within structural limits. This boat will see the other side of 70... but not this time. The wind has left us and none is forecast. I doubt Helena will get her shot at the women's record this time. It's a shame. There really has been very little wind this year but we have sure made the most of that which we have been given. We will remain on standby until Thursday but I think this is it for us.
The first Outright world record has now officially been ratified and there are three more still to come.
The following morning I looked at myself through reddened eyes in the mirror and I liked who was looking back at me.
Yeah I'm happy with that.
Two nights ago we towed Vestas Sailrocket 2 over to speed spot on a flat calm night. We set her up and sat her on the beach as the African sun set. It was time to crack that last big Jeroboam of Champagne. It was the Outright world record bottle that the Mk1 never opened. It had been chilled, heated, transported and left to wait many times since we were given it at the launch of the first boat in 2004. It was a sad moment for me when we had to load this bottle in with the Mk1 when we sent it back to the UK. Well the second boat had earned it and this was the perfect setting in which to crack it. The cork was hard to remove (massive understatement). I shook the hell out of the deeply chilled bottle but when the cork popped... it only barely fell out the end. That big bottle had had a hard life too. Some of the fizz had gone but it still tasted fantastic. We toasted all the people who had helped make it happen and couldn't be here with us... and we drank it from the standard resin mixing cups as the sun set. Friends.