SailGP

Everything you need to know about the science behind the SailGP F50

Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner
January 22, 2024

Ever wondered how a sailboat would stack up against a balloon in a race downwind? And how a boat is capable of reaching four times the speed of the wind that powers it? Well, SailGP’s F50 catamarans not only answer that question, but they’re rewriting the rules of sailing as they go. Let’s dive into the cutting-edge tech that makes these boats fly – yes, fly – on the water.

The great balloon race

So, back to that balloon equation. It’s an age-old sailing conundrum, often debated in yacht clubs around the world. The concept is quite simple: but where a balloon could float directly from point A to B, making a sailboat travel fast is all about angles.

Actually, the idea of sailing faster than the wind isn’t new – it’s actually a feat that sailboats have always been able to achieve, if sailed at the right angle to the breeze. This is called ‘tacking’ and ‘gybing’, and it’s why you see the SailGP boats zig-zagging each other on the course so often.

Back to our pop quiz: surely this extra ground covered by the boat, finding angles of attack to the wind, would put the boat at a disadvantage to the balloon, right? Well, in the case of a normal sailboat, yes – but when we’re talking about a state-of-the-art SailGP F50, the boat would still have the edge.

ROCKWOOL Denmark SailGP Team zig-zagging in Cadiz which allows them to follow the right angle to the breeze and sail faster than the wind speed.

Breaking sailing’s sound barrier

SailGP is known as F1 on water, and you can see why – with super-charged, foiling boats slicing through the waves at speeds that seem to defy logic. The secret? A mix of smart tech, wind-whispering skill and good old teamwork.

SailGP Cadiz Season 4, Cadiz Season 4, ROCKWOOL SailGP Team, F50,

Defying drag with hydrofoils

Forget everything you know about sailing – it probably doesn’t apply here. Traditional sailboats need to deal with drag, the sluggish feeling in the water which slows them down. F50s, on the other hand, by virtue of flying above the water, wave goodbye to drag… and say hello to jaw-dropping acceleration.

Winging it

Looking for an old-school sail? You won’t find it here. Instead, SailGP’s F50s have a modular wingsail, which comes in three sizes: 18-metres, 24-metres and 29-metres. This looks more like an airplane wing, and it works just the same – giving the boat power and lift to pop above the surface.

Racing into the future

SailGP’s F50s can hit speeds of close to 100km/hr powered only by the wind (the record is 99.98km/hr, set by France SailGP Team). But guess what? These athletes have a need for speed, and are hungry for more. So, ahead of Season 5, the boats are getting souped-up with futuristic t-foils and even slicker control systems which could see the boats break the 120km/hr threshold. Are we on the brink of sailing history? Strap yourself in…

Conclusion

SailGP's F50 catamarans aren't your regular sailboats. They're a mash-up of science, speed, and a whole lot of adventure. And what’s more, they’re powered by nature.

Sailing vocabulary

  • Foils - Foils are 'ski-like structures' mounted below the hull of the catamaran. When moved through the water, they generate lift helping the F50 to fly.
  • Wingsail - twin-skin sail or double skin sail is a variable-camber aerodynamic structure that is fitted to a marine vessel in place of conventional sails. Wingsails are analogous to airplane wings, except that they are designed to provide lift on either side to accommodate being on either tack
  • Winch - Winches are drum shaped mechanical devices used to handle halyards, sheets and control lines.
  • Tacking - a sailing maneuver by which a sailing boat turns its bow toward and through the wind so that the direction from which the wind blows changes from one side of the boat to the other, allowing progress in the desired direction
  • Gybing - is a sailing maneuver whereby a sailing vessel reaching downwind turns its stern through the wind, which then exerts its force from the opposite side of the vessel.
  • Drag - the forces that slow the boat down.
  • Upwind - Sailing the boat into the direction of the wind.
  • Downwind - Sailing the boat with the direction of the wind.
  • True wind - This is the wind that you'll feel when stationary and the wind speed you'll see on your local weather forecast.
  • Apparent wind - Apparent wind is a combination of the induced wind and the true wind. By travelling at an angle to the true wind the combined apparent wind becomes bigger than the true wind, enabling boats to travel faster than the true wind speed.
  • Hydrofoil - a lifting surface, or foil, that operates in water. They are similar in appearance and purpose to aerofoils used by aeroplanes.

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