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To foil or not to foil? That is the question

by Mark Jardine 15 Dec 2020 11:30 PST
Maxi Edmond de Rothschild returns to Lorient for repairs © E.Stichelbaut / polaRYSE / GITANA S.A

Foils are all the rage - there's no doubting that. From the America's Cup, to the Vendée Globe, SailGP, Jules Verne Trophy, International Moths, WASZPs, A Class Catamarans, windsurfers, kiteboards and a plethora of other designs, these eye-catching yachts and dinghies are in the air much of the time.

As we've seen, just about everything has been tried in foiling, including sticking a Moth rig on an Optimist, but the question has to be asked whether going down the foiling route is best for our sport, or whether it should be reigned in for some events and applications.

Let's take a look on an event-by-event basis...

When it comes to the America's Cup, this is the pinnacle of technology, so it's natural that the yachts took to the air. Back in 2012 when Sail-World.com first published the photo of Emirates Team New Zealand testing their foiling AC72 (which many thought was a Photoshopped image) that genie was out of the bottle. Yes, some still hark back to the 12 metre days, and even the J Class, but that was the past. The America's Cup is all about innovation, and these foiling 75ft monohulls are certainly innovative.

The F50s used in the SailGP are an evolution of the AC50s used the 2017 America's Cup, so they are naturally foilers. This is crash and burn, made-for-TV racing on short, stadium courses. Foiling is a key part of that.

The Moths are arguably where it all began, and no-one would suggest they should go back to lowriding. The WASZP is an affordable, one-design route into this world, where the relentless march of technology doesn't render your boat uncompetitive with the very latest designs within a couple of years.

So far we've been talking about inshore sailing on short courses. It's in the offshore speeders where the use of foils has grown most recently and where there is the most argument as to whether they should or shouldn't be foiling...

The Vendée Globe has a combination of 'traditional' monohulls and foilers and has done since the 2016-17 edition of the race. There is no doubt that foiling adds another dimension to the race. With 33 starters the 2020/21 edition has the record for entries and (so far) only six yachts have retired.

On the face of it the attrition rate isn't bad at all, with previous editions often approaching 50% (and more in both 1996/97 and 2008/09) of the fleet not finishing, though a quick look at the retirements this time show that all those who've had to abandon their Vendée Globe dreams have been sailing foilers.

It's clear that foiling an IMOCA puts the structure under significant loads and that the real-world situations can exceed the tolerances that the designers have been working to.

Alex Thomson's HUGO BOSS suffered damage to the bow structure before also sustaining rudder damage. The team are unsure whether this was due to a collision with a UFO (unidentified floating object) or if part of the boat failed, but it ended an extremely promising campaign for Alex in a 20 year quest to win this race.

Kevin Escoffier's PRB suffered an extreme failure when the hull folded in half, with the skipper lucky to make it onto his liferaft before the boat sank. Both Samantha Davies and Sébastien Simon had to retire after collisions with UFOs.

The two mighty Ultime trimarans which set off on Jules Verne Trophy record attempts are foilers, and both have ended prematurely after hitting UFOs. The Maxi Edmond de Rothschild had only travelled 1900 miles, albeit at a blistering pace, before having to turn back to Lorient when their port rudder was damaged, while Team Sodebo were 16 days into their attempt, deep in the Indian Ocean, when they suffered damage to their starboard rudder.

Seeing IMOCA 60s and Ultime trimarans foiling is exciting, but a campaign can be ended through no fault of the team or skipper, just by hitting debris, a shipping container, or sea life. At the kind of speeds these boats are reaching, the options for reinforcing or adding crash protection are limited - impacts are always going to cause damage and that's often catastrophic. Especially when it comes to the Vendée Globe, does the integrity of the sporting competition come into question when this element of luck has such a big part to play?

Nearly all sporting endeavours have an element of luck, but there's a fine balance to be played between having too much or too little of this intangible commodity in an event. As with motor racing, many of the casual followers will pay more attention when there is a crash or a rescue, but the sponsors want to see their steed finish the race, preferably on the top of the podium, so when luck plays too big a part in whether a campaign has success or failure, they will begin to look elsewhere to place their sponsorship dollars.

That said, the Vendée Globe is attracting a massive audience. We've seen it on Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com, the official website is recording a huge increase in readership and the Virtual Vendée Globe has an incredible 975,000 gamers registered. Fans bring in sponsors, and this race is on the up. The damage, repairs and rescues provide the peaks in viewership during the race, with Jean Le Cam's rescue of Kevin Escoffier making headlines worldwide and prompting a congratulatory call from France's president Emmanuel Macron.

The Jules Verne Trophy isn't regulated by a box rule, so it's inevitable that the yachts designed to push for a new record will be extreme. They just hoping lady luck is one of their crew.

I haven't yet mentioned The Ocean Race 2022-23, which will have part of its fleet taking part in IMOCA 60s, as well as the VO65s used in the last two editions of the race. Here we will have a foiling and non-foiling class in a fully-crewed offshore race, combined with nine legs. At the end of the day, it will be the human interest stories which make the headlines outside of the sailing media, but first the teams will need to attract the sponsors, which could be tricky in a post-COVID world.

The question of 'To foil or not to foil?' isn't a yes or no answer, but much will depend on the decisions made by governors of rules and organisers of races. Sailors and sponsors will lobby hard, based on their own preferences and interests, but it's unlikely to settle one way or the other offshore for a while!

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com Managing Editor

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