Wingsail tech is going mainstream
Trickle-down economics might not have worked out so well for most of us, but the technological trickle-down from the most recent America’s Cup seems to be falling on fertile ground. First there was what you might describe as the legitimization of foiling; the idea that a boat can rise above the waves and proceed at thrice true windspeed is no longer the province of the sort of wild-eyed evangelistic character you wouldn’t want next to you on the subway. Production-built foiling catamarans are already available. There’s plenty of experimentation going on with foiling monohulls too.
The mainstreaming of another concept once relegated to the fringes of sailing—the wingsail rig—is also well under way. Boatbuilding giant Groupe Beneteau has embarked on the development of a wingsail that it hopes will soon become a viable option on its production boats. A wingsail on a free-standing mast has already been installed on a Sense 43, and the coming summer will be dedicated to trying out the concept in a wide range of conditions and on different boats. Unlike the hard wings of the AC cats, the Beneteau wing is a soft sail that can be reefed and stowed.
Beneteau’s development head, Bruno Belmont, tells me that the concept springs from intensive research into the problem that’s facing the entire sailing industry—how to replace the baby-boomers that are gradually aging out of the pastime. “We think this is a good way to make sailing easier,” he says. “And the only way to bring new people into sailing is to make it easier.”
Belmont also points to research into the learning habits of teenagers that indicates how learning habits have changed—not to mention staying power. “It found that if a child between 10 and 15 cannot learn a game in 15 minutes, they lose interest in it,” he says. “Translate that to sailing, and you see we have a challenge.” Beneteau, he says, is throwing out its preconceptions and taking a fresh look at sailhandling and deck layout in general. The rig itself will be only a part of the process of reinventing the production cruiser.
This process will take years, but full marks to Beneteau for kick starting a new approach to a problem that’s been building for years. In all the other innovations in cruising boat design over the last decade, no production builder has really looked past the two-white-triangles aspect of rig design. Where Beneteau leads, others will surely follow.