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Nacra 17 - Back to the future

Published on 01 december 2014 at 0h00

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In November 2007, the “visionaries” of the ISAF decided to eliminate the Tornado from the Olympic Games. Despite being the only multihull event of the Games, they wanted more “modern” boats with a bright future, such as the 470 or the Star! So there were no catamarans at the London 2012 Games. Multihull fans were in mourning. All this while a trimaran was going round the world in 45 days. And then more recently, even the America’s Cup, one of the oldest sporting events in the world, a conservative bastion of tradition, was undergoing a revolution and getting the whole world fired up with aerial duels providing an intense sporting spectacle in San Francisco Bay.
Fortunately, meanwhile (in May 2012 to be precise), the ISAF back-pedalled a bit, and decided to go for a new multihull. The 470 was losing steam (the 2014 World Championships in Santander, Spain didn’t have enough entries), and eventually, given the figures, common sense prevailed: the two most-practiced disciplines of lightweight craft in the world are the catamaran and the windsurfer. Even better, to improve equality which is sought at all levels, they decided on a mixed team. So at the Rio Games in 2016, there will be 4 women’s series, 5 men’s and a mixed, as opposed to four and six under the previous system.
It’s perhaps there that the Nacra 17 is making the difference. Of all the catamarans in the running in 2012, it was the only one to have been purpose-designed. The talented pair of architects, Gino Morelli and Pete Melvin, were able to respond exactingly to the specifications required by the international organizations, and notably to the choice of a mixed crew which brought about changes to weight and therefore power available with the new craft. However, Nacra had two other potential rivals, the F16 and the F18. But for optimum sailing, the former requires a crew weighing below the ISAF range, and the latter, above the range! In contrast to its rivals (the Tornado and the Viper), Nacra decided to offer a specific design: 25cm longer than the F16, 10cm wider, with a taller rig and curved daggerboards, elegantly known as…foils! A revolution is happening in Olympic sailing which will be under full sail in the 21st century! With the additional lift the foils bring, the boats are faster and more stable, notably downwind, reducing the risk of capsize.
The first boats arrived in December 2012. The drawback of a beautiful brand new model is that it has to be tried and tested! The foils were too big, the boats planed too quickly, and above 11 knots became difficult to handle. Nacra reacted very quickly and adapted them. The same went for reliability issues. The boats’ maximum potential was being exploited, even exceeded, and sailed for at least 225 days a year, as opposed to 30 or 40 for an F18. “In any case, if you want to remain competitive, you need to spend at least 170 days a year on the water”, according to Franck Citeau, French Nacra 17 Olympic sailing coach.
The Dutch company has now supplied 250 boats. As a one-design, it’s not perfect, with varying weights, sail profiles and the impact of the foils as well. But these are only teething problems at an early stage, and which are being quickly addressed and resolved. What’s a couple of short years, compared to the half-century career of the Tornado? What’s more, the level of requirements of the competitors is incredible, and the technical means at their disposal during training is pushing these boats to their limits. The level of precision goes as far as specifying the slightest of differences in volume between the sails which are provided: the heavier crews have deeper sails, the lighter crews have flatter sails. This fine-tuning of the sails doesn’t make it any more economic though, with the basic boat already costing €27,000.
But evolution is fast. Initial sails at between 20 and 22 knots, and with semi-professional helmsmen today edging up towards 28 knots, in relatively stable fashion. All that is required is to get it planning. From 8.5 knots of wind, the two crew are out on the trapeze. Very quickly it is exceeding the windspeed. Racing is intense. At this speed and with circuits of 0.8 miles, races don’t last longer than 30 minutes. Half an hour of holding their breath for the two crew, who must make a good start. That’s “60% of the race” claims Franck Citeau. Upwind, tacking is too quick to make too much difference, and downwind, gybing is too disadvantageous (with speeds reducing from 27 to 12 knots) to risk a different tactic to the rest of the fleet.
The two crew together must weigh between 132 and 140kg. Individuals are not allowed to carry ballast, but are allowed to dress appropriately according to the weather! The coach’s dinghy doubles up as a floating dressing room, where the choice of wear is not determined by fashion, but by its weight and the wind anticipated for the next leg! But even though the machine is high performance, it is also flighty. A helmet is worn on board, and not because it’s trendy - you can get hurt. Being thrown from the water can be violent. As soon as the foil loses its grip, the stern has an angry tendency to try and overtake the bow. This ensures the two crew will take off. Those who are most agile in this game are the ones who take part in different activities such as skateboarding, surfing, kitesurfing, etc, as these give them superior senses and they are able to react better and have better balance. It’s like driving a go-kart. The phases of flight, which may only last a few seconds, require millimeter precision in their application and positioning. Looking forward (to the 2020 Olympics?) there will eventually be foils on the rudder blades, to help flight stability! Balance must be the crew’s mantra. Having mixed crews demands a new approach from the coaches. They need to go back and look at psychological and sociological factors. But this brings a sense of clam, and a positive state of mind, complemented by the characters.
The most recent European and World Championships have been a success. The Nacra 17 is already, after the Laser, the most international fleet that there is. Even before its first Olympic outing, the return of the multihull to the Games has already been heralded as a success. So let’s forget about the delays caused by bureaucracy at the highest levels, whether it be the IOC or the ISAF, and let’s say that the time taken to decide has resulted in a winning solution for both parties. The Olympics will benefit from a dynamic and attractive modern craft: fun, capable and visually appealing. And the small world of multihulls will benefit from being showcased at the Olympic Games every four years.

Nacra 17

Billie Besson and Marie Riou, Nacra 17 world championship title holders

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