The sail boat that thinks it's a plane

Story highlights

  • Team behind Vestas Sailrocket 2 aims to break world speed sailing record
  • Creators say vessel behaves like a boat below water and a plane above it
  • Record is held by U.S. kite surfer who reached 55.65 knots over 500 meters

Sailor Paul Larsen hopes that 2012 will be the year that he and his team will break the world speed sailing record -- and he believes he has the right contraption to do it. The Vestas Sailrocket 2 is half boat, half plane, and hopefully it will soon to be the fastest sailing vessel on water too.

"Everything above the water is an aeroplane and everything below the water behaves just like a boat," says Larsen, a professional sailor who's now turned his attention to breaking the speed sailing record, describing it as his lifetime mission.

To attempt the feat, Larsen and his small team of naval architects, engineers and yachtsmen and women, created the sailrocket -- a hybrid boat/plane. "A large part of this boat is flying, it's supported by aerodynamics," says Larsen . "When it's going at high speed, it's like a well-built paper airplane."

The record is open to any craft, as long as it's using wind and water, and there is at least one person on board. Currently it is held by American kite surfer Rob Douglas, who reached 55.65 knots (103 kilometres per hour) over the required 500 meter course in 2010.

The group held the record briefly three years ago, but they've come across some strong competition for the title, with wind surfers proving to be the toughest opponents.

Last month the team made another record attempt in southern Africa. Walvis Bay in Namibia provides the ideal wind conditions for the sailrocket. The group spent days trying to reach 60 knots -- the speed they believe will not only get them the record, but also keep it with them.

"The boat is based on this whole new idea," explains Larsen. "It's got no overturning forces." He says the wind and water forces are in alignment. "It's like someone trying to push you over by pushing at the soles of your feet."

The craft may be using the latest technology, but its concept is based on a craft that was written about nearly five decades ago. American rocket scientist Bernard Smith wrote about a sailboat in 1963 that he believed could reach 40 knots -- a concept that was well ahead of his time.

Larsen's team tracked down Smith in 2007 to tell the then 97-year-old that they had broken the 40 knots, using the ideas Smith came up with 44 years earlier. Building on that design, they have since been able to go 50 knots and are pushing to go even faster.

In Namibia last month they were unable to go any faster than 51 knots, but Larsen is certain they're not far off the mark. He thinks it's a matter of redesigning the boat's foils. "One of these days we'll get the foil right and I think we'll smash the record."

The professional sailor is determined that there is no vessel like it in the world. It's because of this Larsen is reluctant to talk openly about the specifics of the sailrocket's design as they continue their endeavor to break the record.

He's now back in England working on new foils that will hopefully provide them with the edge they need to get the record. They aim to return to Namibia, perhaps as early as April, to try again.

But the attempts are not without risks. Larsen likens the sailrocket's 500 meter course to an aircraft going down the runway, but with too much weight in its nose so it can't take off.

"It is dangerous," he concedes. "You go out there and you don't realize the consequences if the smallest thing goes wrong."

He says the worst crashes are the ones when the boat dives directly into the water. "That's a killer. At least in the air you slow down."

But despite the dangers, Larsen and his team won't stop until they hit the 60 knot mark and take with it the world speed sailing record.

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