Born to Fly

6 Aug

While engaged in some heavy-duty procrastination one afternoon, surfing Google in quiet desperation in order to avoid writing an overdue article, I came across a mention of the once-famous foiler L’Hydroptère. It’s not just multihull aficionados who will remember the big trimaran—ten years ago, through the summer and fall of 2008 and into 2009, she made headlines not just in sailing magazines but in the mainstream press. She was, for quite some time, the fastest sailing craft in the world.

Her creator, Alain Thébault, was a friend of legendary ocean racer Eric Tabarly, who eagerly embraced the concept of a big boat that could fly across oceans. Like most visionaries, Thébault endured his share of skepticism right from the time he built his first foiler in 1976. In the early 1990s, Thébault assembled a mixed team of sailors and aeronautical and structural engineers, brought top multihull designers VPLP into the fold, and built the 60ft boat with financial assistance from a number of French companies. Launched in 1994, the first iteration of L’Hydroptère hit over 37 knots and set Thébault and his team off on a 20-year quest that peaked in 2008 and 2009. By the autumn of 2008 Thébault and team had got the fifth iteration of the boat going well; in October she achieved a burst of 52.86 knots, though not for long enough to set a record. Two months later, immediately after hitting a top speed of 56.3 knots, she capsized spectacularly.

Back in the saddle the following fall, Thébault and crew finally grabbed their Holy Grail, the outright world sailing speed record, hitting 52.86 knots over 500 meters in 30 knots of wind. In November 2009 she averaged 50.17 knots over a nautical mile. Was there anything left in L’Hydroptère’s tank? In 2012 the hydrofoiler arrived on America’s West Coast. The goal was to set a Los Angeles-Honolulu record. When the team was financially ready to make the attempt it was 2015, and they picked the wrong weather window and sailed a slow passage to Honolulu. There, the boat was tied up and abandoned. The world had moved on; in the wake of the historic 2013 America’s Cup foiling was on its way to becoming mainstream, and technology had moved in a different direction from what was then a 10-year-old design.

The last I heard of L’Hydroptère, she had lain in a marina for a year and then was sold in 2016 to an unknown buyer; I wonder what will become of her, the forgotten harbinger of a new way of sailing. 

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