Voyage of rediscovery

Voyage of rediscovery

New thinking around ancient technology has seen sails making a welcome return to prominence in the seafaring market.

“Raise your sail one foot, and you get ten feet of wind”, as an old Chinese proverb has it. What might be more remarkable today, in the era of the mega-yacht, is that anyone anymore raises sail at all, aside from on learner dinghies.

The motorised vessel has, on first sight, so overtaken demand for sails in the luxury market - despite luxury brands’ association with major events the likes of the America’s Cup, the Tall Ships’ Race and even Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez - that the sail might seem anachronistic.

True sailors, of course, know that it is precisely the quality of being an ancient technology that makes mastering a sailed yacht to best utilise available wind that is at the heart of sailing’s pleasure. Indeed, even at the very top of the market, some kind of battle is at hand between classic sail boats and their proposed equivalents of tomorrow.

Take, for example, the renaissance of the J-Class yacht. The J-Class belonged to an era of the wealthy gentleman adventurer, and were sailed by the likes of Harold Vanderbilt, whose surname speaks for itself, and Sir Thomas Lipton, then owner of the grocery chain and the Lipton Tea brand.

In fact, it was Lipton who had the first J-Class commissioned to race in the America’s Cup. It was a revolutionary design: long, with a waterline of between around 23 and 27m (the size of a yacht being ascribed a letter of the alphabet), sleek, agile and aqua-dynamic - being almost triangular in profile - and with impressive speed, thanks to a mast that allowed the carrying of huge sails, one at a gargantuan 18,000sq ft.

Up until the end of the 1930s only 10 J-Class vessels were ever built but by then it had arguably come to define the look and lines of the definitive classic yacht in the public imagination, one that has held right up to modern times.

Certainly the class still evokes that romance, which may be why Hanuman, a modern recreation of the J-Class, built by the Royal Huisman shipyard complete with a period interior and currently for sale, is garnering so many interested parties.

Or why Spirit Yachts has this year announced an historic collaboration with Sparkman & Stephens yacht-builders to build a new J-Class. But then perhaps it is no wonder at all: a decade ago boatbuilders put the J-Class’ dimensions through aqua-dynamic computer analysis and found that the balance of the design could hardly be improved on. But could the sails themselves?

While one part of the luxury yacht world may look to yesteryear for inspiration, another is decidedly steering towards tomorrow’s - in no part driven by the ecological and financial benefits afforded by new sail or hybrid power technology.

Huisman, for example, also has for sale the Athena - inspired by the J-Class style yachts of the 1930s, but made entirely of aluminium, making it extremely light. It is, in fact, the largest all aluminium sail yacht ever built.

Of course, as with the floating palaces beloved of Russian oligarchs, in sailing yachts size increasingly matters too. Lila-Lou, a Londonbased yacht-brokers, is building the Ankida, at 73m long, while Sparkman & Stephens is building a 75m Bermuda-rigged schooner - to put that in perspective, both yachts will on completion be bigger than Nelson’s HMS Victory (and these are minnows against proposed motor yachts concepts the likes of that from Donald Starkey or Emocean’s 200m Project 1000).

And certainly one key trend in big sailing yachts now are designs that reconfigure the interior to make more space. In fact, UltraLuxum’s CXL concept somehow makes room for an on-board garage, ostensibly built to house a McLaren supercar.

But such concerns are secondary to J-Class levels of style, with the advantages of science too. Enter the likes of Igor Lobanov’s Phoenicia sailing yacht concept, with, for example, a hi-tech version of a bow design dating to the Greek triremes of 2000 years ago.

Or the Maltese Falcon, at 88m long currently the world’s second largest sailing yacht, built for venture capitalist Tom Perkins and, again, while looking to be a classic schooner, operating three hollow masts that rotate to unfurl a huge 2,400sqm of sail that can be extended out along the yard.

Indeed, it is precisely because even the very rich want to save on fuel that sails could prove the future of yachting rather than consigned to its past. Or, at least, sails of a kind. Christoph Behling’s SolarLab Research Company has proven the efficacy of solar-powered craft through the 40 passenger, solar-energy powered boat it designed for London’s Serpentine in 2006, then with another - the world’s largest solar-powered boat - for Hamburg, and, most recently, in a ferry for Hong Kong harbour.

In 2009 Behling received a private commission from a client in Dubai to build a solar-powered yacht, complete with a solar-powered desalination unit. And 2010 saw the launch of the Turanor PlanetSolar catamaran, the world’s largest solar-powered boat to date, using so-called solar sails.

These, as they suggest, use their huge surface area to collect solar energy for conversion into electricity to power engines. Sauter Carbon Offset Design’s Emax E-Volution schooner takes the idea a step further, being a solar hybrid model, able to run on solar power (which, though panels embedded in the hull, also powers all the of yacht’s amenities, from refrigeration to jacuzzis), diesel or wind-power.

Of course, such super-sails come at a price. Lipton’s first J-Class yacht cost him US$1m. The E-Volution will cost you US$40m.