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The 'F' Word: Extreme Sailing in St Petersburg

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A few years ago when the Open Golf Championship was held at Turnberry, a links course on the west coast of Scotland, the camera would pan away during the boring bits - and there were plenty of those – to a yacht sailing close offshore.

The yacht was easy to identify by the giant Hugo Boss logo emblazoned on its sails and hull. Alex Thomson, the round-the-world sailor, and his team had arranged for the yacht to be sailing up and down the shoreline for the duration of the event.

The BBC golf commentators were curious about the constant manoeuvring. “What’s it doing now?” asked one, “Gybing or tacking?”

His colleague said: “I think it’s called advertising.”

When the Hugo Boss team totted up their media exposure from the Open Golf stunt they estimated it was worth about £1m in advertising exposure. Little wonder that the yacht can often be seen lurking around at anchor in camera shot just outside the tunnel at the Monaco Grand Prix. If you’ve ever seen them there and wondered, well now you know.

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In St Petersburg last week, the River Neva and its historic backdrop of palaces and museums was plastered with triangular advertising billboards that you and I would identify as sails. Competition sailing is big business. Mark Turner, who set up the Extreme Sailing series eight years ago, saw a market opportunity for stadium sailing designed to mirror the excitement of the Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit.

The 40-foot catamarans that compete in the series are transported from venue to venue in shipping containers which also contain all the spare parts and mobile workshops to repair them when they get damaged, as they sometimes do when the wind gets up and the yachts begin to sail on the edge.

Sponsors like it because they can entertain clients in the VIP tent and rub shoulders with the world’s leading sailors. The bravest of them can even hitch a ride during one of the races. You can’t do that in Formula 1.

The competitor tent was a who’s who of sailing. Four times Olympic Gold medal winner and America’s Cup tactician Sir Ben Ainslie, reigning World Match Racing Champion Ian Williams, Volvo Ocean race winner Frank Cammas and the current Extreme series champion Leigh McMillan were all there.

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Williams, 37, is the same age as Ainslie with a matching ambition to compete in the America’s Cup. Ainslie has had the more prominent career as an Olympian and three times competitor in the America’s Cup already. But as world champion match racer, Williams is no slouch. In fact both men are deeply tactical in the way they sail. Williams gave up a promising career in the legal profession to sail in a sport that’s changing constantly.

The big change in high level competition sailing right now - what everyone was talking about in St Petersburg – is the growing popularity of foiling. Ever since the foiling AC72 catamarans put on such a show during the last America’s Cup, other events have been clamouring for a piece of the action, from the development C-series catamarans to the new RC32 series established by five-times America’s Cup winner Russell Coutts.

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Williams himself has just ordered an 18ft Flying Phantom foiling catamaran from the French Sail Innovation company. The company developed it from the wing-masted Groupama that dominated last year’s International C-Class Cup.

All the foiling talk led to a few “what next” huddles in the Extreme 40 tent, though the OC Group that runs the series seems satisfied just now with its existing fleet. Beyond the costs of developing an Extreme 40 Mark II, a foiling option would rule out some of its existing venues that succeed because they lend themselves to close-up stadium sailing in tight spaces. In the past, events have been held in an Amsterdam canal basin and on the river Douro in Porto.

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Foiling, nevertheless, seems here to stay. The Americas Cup organisers have plans to experiment with adding foils on to their AC45 fleet, but it’s not yet clear whether foiling catamarans will contest next year’s AC45 series.

Research is pushing forward foiling principals all the time. Hydros, a team of Swiss researchers, with financial support from the private Swiss bank Lombard Odier, have been breaking records on lake Geneva on their foiling trimaran When they took me for a ride last October we cruised along at a steady 30 knots in relatively light winds and, yes, it was terrifying. on Lake Geneva RichardDonkin 2013 10 15 600

Mike Golding, the veteran round-the-world sailor, has recently had lessons on the single-handed foiling Moths in order to learn more about foiling principles. “There’s no doubt foiling is cool,” he says.

Which would suggest that if you don’t yet have a foiling Moth in your superyacht toy store, it might be about time to get one. They’re a bundle of fun. You might even go one better and get a foil for the big yacht too. While hydrofoiling superyachts are probably some way off, a foil-like appendage called a hull vane has been incorporated in to a 42m design at Heesen yachts in the Netherlands. The V-shaped underwater fin is designed to improve fuel-efficiency. That’s a welcome development, given bunkering costs these days.

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So, next time you’re in a bar with your sailing pals, if you want to impress just say the F-word. That alone will get their attention. But, if you want to go one better, drop in the C-word too. That’s cavitation. You can’t really discuss foiling without throwing  cavitation in to the mix. Don’t worry if you don’t know what it means. Few people do outside the physics lab. But in the cavitation bluffers’ guide it’s the thing that happens to water when a boat fin cutting through the water exceeds about 50 knots. The water froths up, making it difficult for a foil to function as it should.

I dropped the C-word in the conversation once or twice this past few days and everyone nodded sagely. I suspect most of the understood it no better than I do. I don’t intend to become a cavitation bore. It’s just a handy word to know when you’re mixing with clever sailors and engineers. Try it. They’ll be impressed.

Image credits: Richard Donkin.  View full gallery here.

Richard Donkin is a writer, journalist and photographer.  He writes on yachting and the superyacht industry for the Financial Times and is the author of two books, The History of Work and The Future of Work. In addition to his sailing blog 'Cardinal Points', Richard writes on fishing, travel, employment and life, all of which can be found on his website at

He's the author of two books, The History of Work and The Future of Work, as well as writing columns on sailing, fishing, travel, employment and life, all of which can be found at - See more at:


He's the author of two books, The History of Work and The Future of Work, as well as writing columns on sailing, fishing, travel, employment and life, all of which can be found at - See more at:

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