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(not yet) fly boys

It’s not often that a jaded Aussie expat pro cat sailor like Andrew “Macca” Macpherson gets excited as a schoolboy about anything, much less yet another 30-something foot beach cat.  But every time I’ve spoken to him over the past year, he’s been giddy with yet another development of his and owner Laurent Lenne’s ‘baby’ – the Great Cup 32 one-design cat.  Macca’s enthusiasm, and the commitment of Lenne to the creation of a new boat, circuit, and series – was contagious enough to rope me in to do something I really try to avoid; report on the first sail of a new design.  In Dubai, the land of the trillion dollar shopping mall, and little else.

For those who’ve been there before, you know the drill – and it always seems the same whether it’s a Hunter or an America’s Cup boat: This is the wrong thread, that’s the wrong material, this is too long, and that’s too short.  Call the designer, call the engineer, call the sailmaker, and then solve the problem yourself.  Why a trouble-free launch is so impossible will perhaps always be a mystery, but Lenne and designer Martin Fischer didn’t make things any easier when they added huge, serpentine carbon foils worth many thousands of dollars and the articulating bearings that they slide through, or L-shaped lifting rudders with tricked out rake adjusters.  You can understand why I got off the plane thinking “If I get 20 minutes of good sailing in over the 2 days, it’ll be a good trip.”

We got far more than that – more than 4 times that much, actually, sailing in light airs just in front of the Dubai International Marine Club for an hour and a half before something went ‘crunch’.  And then they got another couple of days in before they had enough to go back for the final round of changes.  And funnily enough, pretty much everything that went wrong was the low-tech stuff — the rudder foils, main foils, and rig all worked beautifully, and showed us just a hint of what makes this boat so special.  What sent us back to the dock was the simple stuff:  The long, ‘spinal’ sprit, which is a big part of the boat’s structure, failed exactly where it should have when loaded up; at a poorly patched entrance hole.  The end fittings on both the sprit and the main spine also showed serious wear; the choice of materials just didn’t hold up to the loads involved.

So while the team is off re-engineering what they need so they can finalize a reliable one-design boat in the next couple of weeks, let me tell you what she’s really like, at least in light to moderate breeze, and before any of the kinks have been ironed out.

The Great Train Report

First off, let me get the disclosure out of the way: Laurent and the GC-32 are advertisers here, and they paid for my plane ticket to Dubai.  But if you think it was some kind of luxury junket, you’re dreaming – unless you think luxury is trading 10 hours of sweat, dirt, and grease for an hour on the water.

Upon my arrival to the yard, a nipper told me where to put my bag, and I was soon pushing boats around with a GC-32 t-shirt on (UV protected, of course!) and helping to step the mast. I met the team as I entered the yard, and this wasn’t your ordinary team of yard workers; On station were current F-18 (Thijs Visser) and Moth (Josh McKnight) World Champions, along with top F-18ers Karel Begemann and Bastian Tentij, and X40 guru and Tornado coach Hugh Styles.  Also along were designer Martin Fischer, owner Laurent, PM Macca, a couple of videographers, and photographer Christophe Launay.  All in all, a pretty esoteric group of mostly young and mostly shit-hot racers, off spending their holidays helping launch a new concept with old friends.  More importantly (in a town where booze is verboten) they were almost all comedians, able to find the humor and entertainment in a dusty boatyard in 90 degree Fahrenheit.

The first day, they launched without a mast. The boys towed her around with a RIB, and while not all that useful a measurement, they noted the boat popped up completely out of the water at around 20 knots of boatspeed. Some fitting issues kept us from getting on the water a second time that day, but at least we got the rig in without drama, the boat was in the water, and we were ready to go the next morning.  It would be my only chance to sail the boat.

We finally took the tow line at around 11 AM the next day, and it was a cozy group; two RIBs full of champion sailors, but just Macca, Laurent, and I aboard the GC, and just a breath of hot breeze; maybe 6-7 knots.

The Look

Offshore powerboat racing’s dominant Dubai-based Victory Team craned their 12 meter racer into the water just a few meters away from the black GC-32 for some propeller testing, and we chuckled as the shore crew and pilots of this ultra-sleek, impossibly aerodynamic 160 MPG monster stared slack-jawed at the sex appeal of the GC cat.  With its crazy-looking daggerboards and winged cassette rudders raised clear of the water and the knife-sharp bows popping off the surface of the water, the boat looks like she’s ready for an aircraft carrier’s steam catapult and subsequent flight.  The compound curves that transition the flat deck to the edged bow create an interesting illusion, especially appropriate for an Arabian backdrop; in the right light, each bow looks just like that curved Arabian blade made so famous by Sinbad; the scimitar.

The carbon is all flat-black or clearcoated, the fittings are all soft Tye-Tech except for the occasional Harken block or winch, or Karver furler, and the finish work from Premier (the Dubai-based builder of the hulls and many of the structures), Southern (beams, spine, sprit, mast, and boom), and Heol (boards and rudders) is near-perfect.  Even the most critical customer would be hard-pressed to find room for improvement on the boat’s appearance. Compared to other offerings, the GC has a more substantial feel; more freeboard than most of the other ‘super 30’ cats, more structure tying everything together; overall, the GC is far less beach cat and far more ocean racer.

The Feel

While I didn’t get to see how the boat responded to big seas, my short sail combined with a long crawl through the boat afterwards left me little doubt; this thing is stiffer than any multihull I’ve ever sailed.  Compared to something like a Marstrom 32 or SL33, it should be stiff; after all, the GC32 is almost double the displacement of the jibless M-32 and 30% heavier than the SL-33.  It’s more in line with the three-hulled, offshore proven SeaCart 30, and that’s appropriate, because Macca and Laurent specifically pushed for a design that can handle more boisterous coastal racing than the lighter, more lake-focused boats.

That’s not to say the GC is underpowered; not by a long shot.  With greater weight and the additional righting moment created by the foil arrangement, the boat can easily handle its big rig and huge, nearly vertically leached mainsail.  And the tall bows and forgiving foils system seem likely to solve the biggest problem all these super-cats have; bearing away in the big stuff.

Upwind

Tacking out of the channel wasn’t particularly fun; the boat was sluggish without a jib in the 2-4 knot breeze at the harbor mouth, and going upwind with no power and all that board dragging below was a chore.  Once clear to bear off a bit, the boat glided to life quietly, and with a body on the low side, it was easy to get the hull out of the water and build to maybe 9 knots of speed in 5-6 knots of breeze.  Even when we were working at it, tacks weren’t great; as you’d expect in a boat lacking the headsail designed for it, building speed was hard, and meant bearing away 15 or more degrees just to get the boat moving.  The windward foil can create around 300 kg of downforce on the windward hull; more on that below.

Reaching

The big roller-furling gennaker made us forget about the lack of a jib for a while.  Acceleration was immediate, and as we passed through 10 knots, you could actually hear and feel the leeward hull start to come out of the water.  At 12 knots, the leeward bow was clear of the water for a third of its length.  But it never felt the slightest bit skittish; but both upwind and down, the boat tracked like a damned train even as her displacement changed.  We threw in a few gybes and pressed up after each; gybing through around 130 degrees; Macca was proud of how the sailhandling controls prevented trampoline spaghetti on gybes and furls; even the rotator and traveler lines run inside their beams to prevent snafus when things get hairy.  Again, with no jib, no instruments, and an early iteration of the gennaker, I just don’t have much data on performance; whatever speed I noted comes from a great little iPhone app.

The Foils

I’ll leave you to check out the specifics of the foil program yourself, but a quick summary will help with the rest of the report.  The foils are the lifeblood of this boat; they set it apart from the competition, and if they work as designed, they will absolutely make sailing the GC a very different experience than any other boat.   Keep in mind that, as complex as the engineering was, the end result was designed to be simple and easy to deal with for any sailor, and on that note, it succeeds well.  It’s more subtle than you might think, but the system is sensible, well-tested on a smaller boat (on Fischer’s 18’ Phantom testbed), and needs a lot of tuning (and some racing!) to see just what is fast, and when.

Essentially both boards and both rudders stay in the water all the time, except perhaps for the lightest of airs.  The rudder rake, and hence the L-foil’s angle of attack, is adjustable ashore or between races to get the proportion of lift between rudder and board correct.  But the main foils – they’re the fun part.  They’ve got a long horizontal section upwind and down, and by pulling a slim, lightly loaded line that runs from a block to the exposed top of the board, you can change the angle of attack of the big boards from positive to neutral to negative in just a fraction of a second.  While the team knows there is a serious learning curve for these things, the basic rules are pretty easy: Upwind you want lift on leeward, and downforce to windward, and my job on a tack was to pull the AoA line on the new leeward side, and then run across and let the board float forward on the new windward side.  My 10 year old nephew could have done it, and he’s more mathlete than athlete.

Downwind, you’re looking for pure lift, and the sideways forces are a lot less significant than upwind.  So you rake both board tops back for max lift.  While the windward hull, adjusted properly, can create around 80 kg of downforce, the main foils can carry more than 500 kg each at speed.  And watching them in clear water is mesmorizing.

I Believe I Can Fly

The team got another day or two in after I left, including a 12 knot day and a 18 knot day that sent the boat back to the shed.  “We saw numbers that surprised the entire team,” Macca said to me in a phone interview shortly after my trip.  Even so, we still haven’t seen the boat fly completely clear of the water; Macca and his team are taking things slowly, but given the hype, we’re hoping it happens soon.

Real flying probably shouldn’t matter, but it does, and here’s why:  It only takes one run on a nukin’ day with boatspeeds in the 20+ knot range to hook a prospective sportboat owner. The test sailor knows he may not sail again in those conditions for a long time, but that one run is enough to get him to not only sign a check, but to stay interested until the next big air run in a few months or years.

A fully foiling GC-32 will do the same thing for the budding class and series;  owners and crew who feel the boat unload and light up downwind in the 30+ knot range are going to be blown away even if they’re hardcore cat sailors, and they’ll make the best missionaries to convince their pals to come join the fun, regardless of what they currently race. And a couple of shots or videos with the boat 2 feet above the water, skimming the surface like an osprey hunting a trout and leaving everything – even bigger multihulls, far behind, will raise a lot of eyebrows – even if it only happens when the conditions are just right.

The Verdict

I have to constantly remind myself that boats succeed or fail based largely on factors completely unrelated to boats, and no matter how shit-hot the GC-32 is or how easy it is to drop in a container for shipping, it will only sell in numbers if there is a real series, solid marketing, and great customer service.  Laurent and Macca are at it almost a year now, and they seem committed to making

The Great Cup series work, with the 2013 dates and venues on the verge of being announced, and the potential for double digit fleets in just the first year of operation. But that’s a story for another day.

Christophe Launay photos, with the full series here.