Laird Hamilton Sets New Hydrofoil Boarding World Speed Record

Posted: Jul 25 2012


When I accepted the invitation from Captain Jacques Vincent to go for a sail on the experimental multihull hydrofoil and speed-sailing world record holder Hydroptere, I didn’t fully realize the experience I had signed up for, but it was an epic adventure I will never forget. For those of you unfamiliar with the sport of speed sailing, Hydroptere is a one of a kind, ultra-extreme trimaran, that doesn’t ride on the water but fly’s above it on 3 giant hydrofoils. Just the kind of yacht you would expect to attract foil-boarding expert Laird Hamilton.

Extreme Athletes Attract Each Other 

This once in a lifetime chance to ride on the fastest sailboat in the world was possible because the crew of Hydroptere is currently training out of Long Beach Harbor preparing to set a new record for the fastest crossing of the Pacific Ocean. As you might expect, extreme athletes attract each other, and with a shared passion for hydrofoils, it was only natural for Laird and the Hydroptere team to hook-up.

When I got my first sight of Hydroptere, I knew that I was in for a major adrenaline rush. Just one look at the massive foils extending some twenty feet into the water under the boat, and I knew that things on this boat had the potential to get pretty crazy. Then when I saw Laird carrying his foil-board, I knew for him this had the potential to be an exceptionally adventuresome day. It was one thing to go out in heavy winds on an experimental flying sailboat, but to be towed on a foil board behind this powerful and largely unpredictable beast of a sailboat was undoubtedly going to be way extreme. It was clear, that none of the French crew knew exactly how things would turnout, but there was huge excitement about the possibility of pairing up with Laird to set a new foil-boarding world record. Up until this day, the foil-boarding record for being towed behind a sailboat was held by Alex Thomas who successfully foil-boarded behind his Open 60 Hugo Boss at almost 20 knots.

Flying Above The Water Like A Giant Waterbug

So off we went, literally. Within just seconds of hoisting the mainsail and unfurling the jib, the boat lifted above the water and took off accelerating to 40 knots in just a few seconds. Given this huge boat must weigh around 20,000 lbs., when it starts flying above the water like a giant waterbug it is a completely crazy sensation. My reaction was to just hold on with both hands and see what would happen as captain Jacques attempted to maneuver this 60 foot long by 80 foot wide maxi-yacht through the large fleet of spectators gathering around us. Fortunately, once Hydroptere lifted out of the water, every boat around us intelligently headed in the other direction.

After a brief “shake-down” in the harbor to make sure everything was working properly, the next step was to head out to sea towards Catalina Island to practice for the upcoming Pacific crossing attempt. With 5 to 7 foot waves and 20 knot winds outside the harbor, all the crew made a quick dash for foul weather gear, but without question I would have also worn a crash helmet if offered one.

The ride to Catalina was an epic sailing experience like nothing I had done before in over 20 years of ocean racing. It only took roughly 30 minutes to cross most of the channel to Catalina, and we gave the tourist a thrill as we sailed passed the high performance turbine powered Catalina Express, flying over the water at a steady 35 knots plus. Of course Laird was compelled to climb out on the bow of the boat as it periodically dove into the water to get a firsthand look at how the foils where functioning under the multihulls’ wings. You could see he was analyzing the amount of turbulence, and determining how his foil-board would react in the aerated water spraying out from behind the boat.

Go As Fast As You Want, I’ll Just Hang On Until I Crash Or Have To Let Go

After the quick practice run, Laird was convinced he could find calm enough water behind the boat to support his foil-board, so it was time for the big moment. The question for Laird was, “how fast do you want to go”. Off course in Laird’s typical unconcerned fashion he responded, “go as fast as you want, I’ll just hang on until I crash or have to let go”. Not much of a plan, but that was the plan.

It didn’t take much organizing, Laird strapped on his foil-board and jumped in behind Hydroptere. Within seconds, the boat jumped out of the water and accelerated to 22 knots, immediately setting the new world record. Captain Jacques slowed the boat and applause broke out all around. However, the question still remained how fast could Laird go if we really pushed it.

Ready For An All-Out Run

The captain swung the boat around and asked Laird if he was ready for an all-out run, Laird gave a thumbs up and off we went. Again Hydroptere jumped out of the water and hit 20 knots in no time, but instead of backing-off the crew began to push the boat closer to its limits, and within a few seconds the boat was traveling well over twenty knots. You could see the aerated water coming from Hydroptere’s huge foils was affecting Laird’s board and at any time he could possibly lose control and come crashing down. Just as the boat exceeded 32 knots Laird decided that was enough, let go and carved away from Hydroptere. Then in true Laird fashion, he launched himself off the boats’ massive wake into a full back flip while going over 40 miles an hour.

Another Day With Laird Is In The Works

With a new world speed record for hydrofoil-boarding behind a sailboat clearly established, everyone on board was excited to be in a small way involved. Ironically, Laird’s reaction to the whole event was to only focus on the next Hydroptere sailing session, promising to come back with a higher performance foil-board which would possibly be capable of handling Hydroptere’s top speed. In fact, he even had a few thoughts for how Hydroptere’s team could get a little more out of their own foils. So as the French crew waits for the right wind to propel them across the Pacific on their record setting voyage, another day with Laird is already in the works. Of course the crew must first subject themselves to a Laird Hamilton pool workout, but these extreme sailors are of course up for anything.

Written by John Wildman