For more than eight years, the world sailing speed record has remained unbroken.
In November 2012, Australian Paul Larsen reached 65.45 knots (or 121 kilometers per hour/75 mph) in his Vesta Sailrocket 2 in South Atlantic waters off the coast of Namibia.
However, two rival teams, one in France and one in Switzerland, are now striving relentlessly towards the same goal: to create the fastest sailboat ever built.
One is headed by the former world title holder, and there are two brothers involved – but on opposing teams.
Return to glory?
Setting speed records on water isn’t a new thing for Alex Caizergues, 41, a four-time kite speed world champion from France.
In 2010, Caizergues became the first person ever to pass the 100 kilometer-per-hour mark sailing on wind power alone.
With this feat, he also set a new world speed sailing record. A short-lived reign, since he was dethroned, just a few days later, by fellow Frenchman and kiteboarder Sebastien Cattelan.
But now Alex Caizergues has enlisted a team of extreme sports athletes, tech entrepreneurs and financiers to help him claim it back.
The science of frictionless sailing
The sirocco is a warm wind originating in the sandy expanses of the Saharan desert. Well known to sailors all over the Mediterranean, this occasionally ferocious southeasterly wind lends its name to Caizergues’ project.
Based in the port city of Marseilles, maritime technology startup Syroco is working on a wind-powered boat able to break the 80 knots barrier, equivalent to 150 kilometers per hour.
But first of all, let’s forget about the traditional sailing boat concept.
Syroco is nothing of the sort: It’s essentially a six-meter-long fish-shaped capsule pulled by a kite.
The capsule is suspended a few feet above the surface of the water. It would almost be flying, were it not for a retractable arm attached to a submerged foil, which provides stability and direction as well as the only point of contact with the water.
The two people sitting inside the capsule will have the task of controlling both the kite and the foil for optimal balance and movement – not an easy task when skimming the surface of the sea at 80 knots.
Aerodynamics and fluid physics
Caizergues tells CNN Travel he’s confident that, all going to plan, he’ll be able to make a first record-breaking attempt in early 2022.
Before then, Syroco’s first step will be to test a radio-controlled exact replica, which will be one quarter of the size of the real thing and should be ready early this year.
Syroco’s eye-catching, stylized design is the result of extensive research in the fields of aerodynamics and fluid physics.
It’s precisely from this engineering prowess that the startup hopes to derive most of the project’s value, since, rather than a one-off stunt, this record-breaking attempt will serve as a launchpad for more far-reaching ambitions
The idea is that Syroco will act as a long-term catalyst for innovation in the field of maritime technology. “We favor the moonshot approach; we want to stretch the technology envelope,” says Caizargues.
Syroco’s eclectic lineup of founders and early backers includes tech venture capitalists who are active in both France and Silicon Valley, an oceanic solo yachtsman, and the co-founder of a NASDAQ-listed software firm.
“It is not so much about setting a new record, as it is about developing new technologies that bring efficiency to the world of sailing,” says Yves de Montcheuil, one of Syroco’s co-founders, before highlighting the project’s environmental credentials.
“The work we do here in fields such as supercavitation have many industrial applications and can help the shipping industry reduce emissions by making ships more efficient.”
Cavitation is a physical phenomenon that takes place when, under certain speed conditions, bubbles form around objects that move in water. When pressure changes and these bubbles collapse, they produce a shock wave that can damage surfaces exposed to it, such as ships’ propellers.
However, engineers have learned to use cavitation to produce a bubble-like effect that envelops underwater objects, reducing friction and allowing them to move at high speeds. This is the so-called supercavitation, a technology which is used by some advanced torpedoes and propellers.
Syroco expects to be able to commercialize the data and know-how it acquires in this area, for example in developing computerized simulations, and it is already starting to cooperate with shipyards and other players in the shipping industry to deploy them in industrial applications.
The race is on
Another, so far speculative, line of thought is whether this endeavor could evolve into a new sport franchise: a sort of Formula One on water, in which high-tech superfast sailboats might compete regularly with each other.
If this was the case, Syroco’s team may soon find a worthy rival in the SP80, a project started in 2019 by three graduates of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a prestigious Swiss engineering school, which is also supporting its development.
The team is based just a few hundred miles north of Caizergues’ Marseilles operation.
While similar in appearance to Syroco’s concept, in this case the central capsule isn’t lifted above the water but skims the surface with help from two lateral foils protruding from each side.
Like breaking the sound barrier
“This is the constructive solution that allows you to overcome the issue of cavitation,” co-founder Mayeul van den Broek tells CNN Travel. “This is one of the reasons it is difficult for conventional ships to sail faster than 40 or 50 knots; it is a bit akin to trying to break the sound barrier in a plane.”
The SP80 team is currently focused on breaking the record, rather than in finding longer-term applications for its technology, but aside from that, it’s aiming for the same 80-knot barrier as Syroco and within a similar time-frame.
“Of course we know each other,” says van den Broek, when asked about the competition between the two projects, before revealing that SP80 co-founder Benoit Gaudiot is the brother of Syroco engineer Thomas Gaudiot.
“There is some rivalry to beat the record, but I think rivalry also spurs both teams,” says van den Broek. “It will also help us get the word out, raise awareness about what we are trying to do here.”