Stories of Going from Sailor to Foiler

From the April 2019 48° North issue

For many of us, sailing is about constant learning. We learn trim, navigation, systems, storm tactics, provisioning, and, above all, seamanship.  These bits of knowledge are a little like well-worn paths, known and not terribly exciting but a very satisfying devotion to our sport.

Then, once in a while there, comes a sea change where a completely new aspect of sailing comes to the fore, and we get to learn something completely different and sometimes life-changing. Foiling is one of these sea changes. It’s definitely different, exciting, and for many, life-changing.

The foiling sailboat concept isn’t new, or even close to it. Back in the 1950s on Lake Mendota, Wisconsin, the U.S. Navy was curious about foiling and sponsored the development of the Monitor sailboat. Its foil racks lifted the boat out of the water and helped it to speeds of 30-40 knots. For some reason, foiling sort of slipped sailors’ minds for a while. Then came Eric Taberly and the Paul Ricard in 1980, a semi-foiling trimaran that got the whole world talking when it set a new transatlantic record.

Leave it to a development class for developments. The first foiling Moth turned up in 1972, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that foiling Moths really took over. With the proliferation of carbon fiber, bigger and bigger boats were soon able to fly. There are now 100-foot flying multihulls, and even a production Beneteau monohull with semi-lifting foils.

Sailing a foiling, or even semi-foiling, big boat is no doubt a skill in and of itself. But to Learn to foil, there’s nothing quite like approaching it with just you, the foil, a sail and some sort of hull, hulls, or boards to hold it together. After all, once you’re up on a foil, it really doesn’t matter what kind of hull you’re dragging around with you. It’s just a drag.

Retired, But Flying High

Al Johnson’s first boat in the 1970s, an old E Scow, wasn’t a foiler, but it certainly was “out there” on the performance scale when he bought it used for $800 from the very first commodore of the Washington Yacht Club. Keelboats later became his passion and he’s sailed up and down Puget Sound and elsewhere countless times. But with retirement came more time, time he wanted to spend sailing and learning something new. Intrigued by the Moth, he saw a new one at Sail Sand Point and connected with the owner Allan Tencer. The two tackled learning to foil it with gusto. It kicked their butts for some time, but when they eventually got a wand that determines the lift angle of the hydrofoil figured out, they found themselves scurrying around Lake Washington frequently. Johnson eventually bought a used Bladerider for $7,500, and sails it to this day.

“It’s fabulous fun,” Johnson says. He gets downright giddy when talking about how everything goes silent when the carbon fiber hull lifts out of the water and all that’s left is the quiet hiss of the thin foils going through the water. The learning curve has been a steep one. “Trial and a lot of errors,” he quips. A salesman once told him, “If you can sail a Laser on a windward-leeward course in 15 knots of breeze you can probably foil a Moth.” So Johnson boned up on his Laser for a bit before tackling the Moth.

The wand – aka “ride height adjustor” – automatically adjusts the foil trailing edge that provides lift. The wand skips along the water and as the boat lifts, the angle lessens, allowing the boat too level out. As the hull dips down, the angle increases, lifting the boat. Johnson and Tencer found it’s critical to get those push-rod settings correct – being a quarter of an inch off either way changes the experience from “can’t lift off the water” to “leaps out of the water and immediately crashes.”

When Johnson first got going, it was easy to capsize to weather. There’s an “unstable equilibrium” between weight, flying height and mainsheet tension that needs to be figured out, and felt. The skipper is making both macro and micro mainsheet adjustments as much to keep the boat upright as it is to propel it forward. Johnson, who still races his Quest 30 Charlotte, is completely sold on foiling. “Once you’ve tried three dimensions, two dimensions just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Some of the things Johnson has learned along the way –

  • You don’t right the capsized Moth, crawl in and sail away. It’s too unstable, plus when you are standing on the centerboard, you can’t kick your leg high enough to get over the edge of the wingbar. You have to water-start it much like a kiteboard or small windsurfer.
  • When the Moth nosedives, you get bruises from your body shooting forward and hitting the shrouds when the boat stops. Johnson has pool noodles on the shrouds to make for a softer landing on the shrouds. Getting the ride height adjusted correctly means he doesn’t do that nearly as often.
  • As a beginner, you need a second person around. First off, launching is a lot easier with another person helping. Then, there’s the real possibility of getting stranded on the water for one reason or another.
  • The amount of water that can enter orifices (noses, of course) when you crash at 15 knots is “impressive.”

Advanced Moth Sailing

Dalton Bergan, who was one of the top college small boat sailors in the country and has been in the top five at Moth World Championships, not surprisingly didn’t really have too steep of a learning curve. He caught the Moth bug early. “I was invited down to San Diego by Charlie McKee and a few others. After going out with them for an hour or two, I was racing.” The gentle breezes and flat waters of San Diego Bay were helpful.

While Bergan’s learning curve may be a bit different than a lot of sailors’, he has some tips that the rest of us can bear in mind. For one, it’s vitally important to get the setup correct on the boat. Also, while it’s certainly a goal to stay up on the foil through the tacks and gybes, it’s not absolutely necessary in the case of tacks. “Sometime it’s actually faster not to foil through a tack,” he says.

These days, when he’s not sailing his RS Aero, Bergan is challenged by yet another kind of foiling; kite foiling. Kite sailing in itself is quite a challenge, but kite foiling is yet another notch above. Unlike the Moth’s wand that controls the foil attack angle, the only thing controlling the foil attack angle on a kite is weight. Lean back too much and the board shoots out of the water. Too much pressure forward and the board nose-dives. It took Bergan about six times out before he could kite foil and 10 times before he felt any good at it.

An intriguing relatively new foiling sport, sans sails, is niggling at Bergan – foilboarding. Basically, it’s surfing with a foil. It can be done with surprisingly small waves, so Bergan expects to see some appearing around our region. By the way, apparently it does have a “mast,” which is what the vertical part of the foiling apparatus is called.

As challenging as other kinds of foiling are, Bergan misses the high level of competition in the Moth. “It’s just tough to have good racing at the local level,” he says. And then there’s the cost aspect. He estimates that a top Moth costs “north of $30K.” That’s enough for a few RS Aeros.

Four-Point Foiling

The secret to popularizing foiling is really in the hulls. The Moth’s foot or so of beam and wide racks aren’t exactly user friendly to a novice with less perseverance than Johnson. Standing on boards, even without foils, is a challenge for a lot of us.

That leaves the choice to multihulls, and it’s a good one. Just ask the veterans of the last two America’s Cups. For the rest of us that aren’t going 50mph, they may be a solution as well. Small catamarans have great initial stability, and the foiling can be accomplished with multiple foils spread far apart, instead of inline like a Moth.

Helena Scutt of Kirkland knows foiling all the way down to her toes, literally. Until recently, she was deeply into an Olympic campaign as crew for Bora Gulari on a foiling Nacra 17. She’s now living in San Francisco, furthering her career in mechanical engineering and coaching.

Scutt explains, “The crew can adjust the foils’ attack angle on a Nacra, but there’s no time to do that on the fly.” There are plenty of foils, one on each rudder and centerboard. The crew would have to lean in from the trapeze and adjust a line connected to wormgear. The quicker and more effective adjustment is body weight. Lean or step back and the foil will provide more lift. Put more pressure forward and the bows go down.

When it comes to learning this skill, Scutt says simply “there’s decisive feedback if you do it wrong.” Nacra crews even have a word from some of that feedback: “splat.” When the boat gets too much lift, comes out of the water and then comes down, it’s a splat. To avoid splats and other feedback, Scutt uses most of her senses. There’s the feel of the boat through her feet, looking ahead for waves and behind for puffs and even her ears: the pitch of the vibration-caused noise from the rudders is a good indicator of how things are going.

Production Foiling

The UFO may be the solution for the singlehanded learning or beginning foiler. It is a 70-pound catamaran on in-line  foils, developed by the team that built Vanguard boats many years ago. The sit-on-top boat reportedly has speed comparable  to a Moth, yet can be easily launched and sailed in shallow waters.

On a somewhat larger scale is the Beneteau Figaro 3, built for the Figaro singlehanded racing series in France. It has also raced in last year’s Pacific Cup with an experimental rating. A Fond Le Girafon ran away from her class on the water and was, in fact, the first boat into Hawaii.

The Figaro is not a full foiling boat, but a foiling assisted boat. The inward-facing foils lift the boat  somewhat, combat leeway and provide righting moment.  All of this makes the boat faster with more user-friendly foils than are used on the IMOCA boats and record-setting multihulls.

Foiling Future

While the Beneteau and UFO boats are exciting and innovative, the jury is still out on what role foils will play in production boats and the future of sailing. They’re certainly here to stay. They’ll also become easier to use as builders and designers search for ways to bring products to market.

Foiling is already old hat to a lot of the world’s best sailors. For the rest of us, it’s high time we at least give it a try.