Not just anyone can handle the helm of a supercharged, foiling F50 catamaran. To get one of these racing machines around the course at speeds topping 100 km/hr takes excellent tactical nous, expert decision making and nerves of steel.
As many people have been to the moon than have driven an F50 boat in SailGP. And according to Nicolai Sehested, Denmark SailGP Team presented by ROCKWOOL’s driver, taking the wheel of a cutting-edge SailGP catamaran, the ideal profile for the job would be someone with a very specific set of skills.
“I think if you were to design the perfect SailGP driver, they would have the mental focus of a chess grandmaster, the endurance of an Olympic swimmer, the balance of a skateboarder, and the steady hands and composure of a bomb disposal expert!” he laughs.
Experience equals expertise
And not to mention, many hundreds of hours sailing these unique boats. Because the only way to really get comfortable flying a 50-foot catamaran around, metres above the water, against seven other boats pushing the limits at mind-bending speeds, is to clock up the hours onboard.
When you do, you’ll notice that things begin to feel more, well, normal, according to Sehested.
“It’s no coincidence that the best drivers of these boats tend to be the ones who have spent the most time sailing them,” he adds.
“It sounds cliche, but you have to see the boat as an extension of you. To be successful in SailGP, you first have to be able to put the boat where you want it – and that’s much harder than it looks.”
The helm – or steering wheel – itself is light to the touch. So sensitive in fact, that it could be controlled with just a pinky finger.
“If we’re sailing in a straight line, I could control the whole boat with a single finger,” explains Sehested. “But when we turn, it’s a whole different story.”
Three times gravity
Ah, the turns. When the fully-loaded F50 tacks or gybes, it generates an incredible amount of G-force, hitting as much as 3G’s – the same as an astronaut experiences during a rocket launch, and enough to deprive an untrained adult brain of oxygen.
“That moment when you move into a turn, it’s like being on a rollercoaster – I put my leg on the side of the boat to push against the wheel, and squeeze as hard as I can,” he adds.
“It’s actually quite crazy the amount of power that these boats generate. Essentially, you have enough power to launch a 737 at your fingertips, with the press of a button.”
On the SailGP F50 catamaran, there are two helms, and they connect to the rudders – the vertical, blade-like appendages mounted below the boat.
Just like in any other type of boat, the rudder on the F50 works by deflecting water flow. As the driver turns the wheel, the water strikes the rudder with increased force on one side, and decreased force on the other. The rudder moves in the direction of the lower pressure, and as it goes, so does the stern, turning the boat.
Rudders designed for extreme speeds
Of course, on these state-of-the-art boats, it’s not quite that simple. These rudders are designed to survive extreme speeds – and they’re made of tough stuff, with a steel core and carbon fibre on the outside.
Despite their almost blast-proof make up, they can bend up to a metre either side when they’re fully loaded.
“At times, the windward rudder can be loaded with as much as 2.5 tonnes – that’s the same as an adult elephant sitting on the side of the boat,” continues Sehested.
“So it’s really important that I don’t get too much heel, or the boat will capsize, and likely throw everyone overboard.”
As the boat races at full speed, the leeward rudder pushes up to stop the boat from getting pushed into the water – and the windward rudder is sucking down at a negative angle.
The rudders are designed to be highly customisable – with rudder rake and differential settings optimising how the rudders slice through the water with minimum drag, translating into additional horsepower during manoeuvres.
Sehested has a colourful dial to set rake adjustments (the pitch of the rudder), a task he shares with Flight Controller Rasmus Kostner, with one button setting rake differential to maximum (used when foiling), one to neutral (used when not foiling), and two more allowing smaller, 0.3 degree adjustments to the rake.
Customisable for optimum performance
And, just as the boat’s foils are interchangeable, so are the rudders. SailGP teams will use light air rudders in 4-14 knot wind range, and switch out for the high speed rudders in anything over 15 knots – ensuring maximum speed and balance in a wider range of conditions.
Sound complicated? Well, it is. But throw in seven other teams, all pushing you to the limit in search of marginal gains, and you’ve got a picture of just how stressful and exhilarating racing one of these boats can be.
“Coming into the hectic start line of a SailGP race, my heart beat can top 150 beats per minute, the same as a Formula 1 racing car driver,” adds Sehested.
As British shores beckon for the SailGP fleet you can check out all the exciting action from the Great Britain Sail Grand Prix in Plymouth on 17-18 July by heading to www.sailgp.com/watch