Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Trench for Your Maritime Museum?

As he shut down the "French Trench" and the Masters of Speed event where Antoine Albeau set a new sailing speed record earlier this year, organizer Christophe Simian mused that, perhaps, the moment for the purpose-built trench has passed. He described the trench as, "still the best place for breaking records, but only for windsurfers. Don’t forget, the kitesurfers aren’t far behind now and they're climbing fast. And l’Hydroptère is a serious project. Either of them could end up sending the speed canal to the maritime museum."

As in, 50 knots in 2008.

Albeau made 49.09. So close.

The trench has set the standard for quite a while now, but?

l’Hydroptère just looks as if it ought to be good for 50 knots, probably with a smoldering Gauloise dangling from the helmsman's lips.

Photo by Arnaud Pilpre/Sea & Co.

Bursts of 50 knots plus? That's already happened plenty of times. It's that sustained speed over a measured, controlled 500 meters that is still out there for somebody. There's no "barrier" even though it's a seductive word. It's just plain hard to go that fast under sail. We're talking 57.5 mph, enough heat to earn a speeding ticket on many of America's highways.

Paul Larson's innovative SailRocket project out of the UK topped out in the 30's in its most recent outing. Larson is in the field right now at Walvis Bay, Namibia and updating his web site daily . . .

And the should-be promising effort from Australia, Macquarie, topped at 44.71 knots as of their last update a year ago. This is the same team that set a 46.52 knot record in 1993 with Yellow Pages Endeavour, only to have it snatched by the windsurfers on the trench. Their web site still says, "It's getting harder and harder to justify updating this page as the story is, unfortunately, pretty much the same each time we write." I repeat, that's a 2007 update. SailRocket and Macquarie represent the technogeek side of the race; the windsurfers are pure muscle and nerve, not that it doesn't take plenty of nerve to pilot one of these technogeek contraptions, and not as though there haven't been some spectacular crackups.

So 50 knots is out there. It took a while for someone to finally overtake windsurfer Finian Maynard's old mark of 48.7 knots, set in April 2005, but it's easy to imagine that 2008 will be the Year of Fifty. It's not as though this covers every one of the hopefuls.

l’Hydroptère went back into the water last month at La Trinité sur Mer, and it will be sailing soon, looking for those big winds that come roaring out of the interior of France.

At the end of the Masters of Speed event, Simian reflected, "It’s left me with mixed feelings. I was disappointed by the women’s performances; they just didn’t dare risk it. That’s a big shame because it was a great opportunity for windsurfing to grab back Sjoukje Bredenkamp’s record, and we didn’t manage to break 50 knots. Despite Antoine Albeau’s gigantic achievement I still come away feeling like it’s a job not done. With more work and more money we could have given the riders an even better water surface to work on."

Sjoukje Bredenkamp is the young South African who last year set the women's speed record with a kite at 42.35 knots . . .

On the men's side there is Alexandre Caizergues, whose mark of 47.92 knots stands as the overall speedkiting record for 500 meters (yes, it hurts to crash).

Back to the trench—

An artificial canal is a difficult thing to create and maintain, especially when it has to be in a high wind area. Pronouncing himself exhausted at the end of the Masters of Speed event, Simian put a bottom line on the experience: "It’s all down to the fine details. Albeau made his run but with quite a bit of damage to the northern canal edge after the big southeasterly storms we had in November and January. The edge wasn’t perfectly straight. That may have cost us one or two tenths of a second. But 50 knots is very close, we touched it with the tips of our fingers. A shame for us and good for the others. That’s how it is."

And when Albeau took the record, this is how it was, the fastest man in sailing, as seen through the lens of windsurfjournal.com . . .