dancing on the water

dancing on the water

Paige Brooks checks in after an exhilarating ride on Alain Thebault’s Hydroptere DCNS. Photos by Paige and Tom Zinn.

On my way over the Golden Gate Bridge to meet L’Hydroptere DCNS’s tender, I glanced over and caught sight of the boat it as it revved up on the way to a new speed record. The regular collection of tourists was walking across the bridge, but this time they were pointing and taking pictures of the eye-catching French foiler.  By revving up, I mean the boat is freakin’ fast under mainsail only, and then they unfurl their headsail and it’s pedal down, boat up and fast forward.   As it turned out, photog Tom Zinn was aboard when they set a new inside SF Bay 1 NM record; more on that below, but suffice to say; it is shockingly fast.  At our meeting point, the Golden Gate Yacht Club, even more folks were on the water watching her fly, her silver sails and floating spray glinting in the afternoon sun.

For the last 14 years, the St. Francis Yacht Club has run the Bridge-to-Bridge race.  Started by a few windsurfers and augmented by kite boarders, it’s now a collection of high-tech skiffs, multihulls, and boards zooming across from the Golden Gate Bridge to the landing pad near the Bay Bridge.  The flying fleet is a sight to behold, and this year L’Hydro did a demo run, starting 10 minutes before the fleet to stay out of the way of the spaghetti fest to follow.

Besides taking a run at the B2B, the Hydroptere DCNS team’s other mission was to go for a San Francisco Bay nautical mile record.  Their 37.5 knots (in 20) was enough to claim the record, but they seemed a little let down.  Given the highest speed they’ve hit is 56 knots and their personal 1 NM record is 50.16, maybe they had reason to be annoyed, but maybe world record speed holder Rob Douglass’s attendance on the boat didn’t help. Nevertheless, they’ve set the pace, and in a place like San Francisco, everyone else will be taking their shot soon – maybe even the AC-72s.

Even with less than 40 knots on the speedo, the guys on board were still intoxicated by the speed and town.   "I love sailing in San Francisco, I want to stay here!" said Alain Thebault, as we watched the Bridge to Bridge competitors come screaming downwind.  

Alain is a bit like a fully grown Peter Pan, always with a smile as he plays on this platform of speed, risk, and maybe a little frivolity.  L’Hydroptere is his brain child, after sailing and power boating in the water as a kid, he spent much of the rest of his life learning to fly on the water.  He has been doing so for the last 25 years aboard this boat.  She dances on the water, and he literally dances with his arms out, birdlike, across the trampolines.  He showed me every corner of the boat where you can best suck in the  speed.  The windward hull from the bow with all the crew crowded there, working the race car wheel and the low gear traveler winch, the leeward hull from the stern which whistled constantly as we rose up in the puffs, and the speed / load measurement panels from interior of the center hull.  

The middle hull is also their home, and Thebault tucked himself into the aft berth, which has about 12 inches of vertical wiggle room under the cabin hatch, and grinned back at me.   We talked about his 25+ years aboard and I asked him how many times he’d modified the boat and he said, "We have crashed it four times, and every time, brought it back lighter and faster."  Back out of the "cabin," I bounced along behind him on the tramp to check out the leeward foil – we were going about 20knots and the boat was fully in the air, just a few feet of boat in the water – the foil he said can take up to 50 tons of load.  When you think about an entire boat balancing on those 5 or 6 feet of dagger board and a rudder (according to their website it’s 2.5 square meters), the force there is incredible. 

There’s been similar chatter in the SAAC thread starting here about the load on the foils of the BatCat, Oracle Racing’s new AC72, which broke a board on their first day sailing.  Imagine the amount of load the hull sails have, the physical force, all resting on that board and a rudder.  The boat torques entirely differently than a cat or a monohull when it’s "flying" on the foils.  I could feel a side to side shudder as we moved through the heavy chop of the bay in ebb tide, but the boat moves seemingly effortlessly while the wind screams by and the leeward foil whistles.  There are sensors on the foils (and everywhere around the boat) which go off as it approaches maximum load.  When they hit their record speed, the alarms were going off, which reminded me of Jimmy Spithill’s comments after winning the America’s Cup on USA17 about the boat’s load alarms.  “The alarms were going off the entire race,” he said.

There really is no way to compare a ride on this boat to anything else.  For all Hydroptere DCNS’s angular looks, she moves with grace and elegance across the water.   And for all the fun Alain and his team seem to have, the boat’s technology is their grounding force, with an eye to the sensors, the wind, the weather, and even cursing the ferry boat that slowed their runs across the bay. L’Hydroptere is in California to make a run for the Trans-Pac record, but are waiting for their optimal weather window.  So for now, they can bee seen flying around the Bay in San Francisco. Big Boat Series does have a multi hull category…hint hint.