A decade ago I read an article about two men setting out to break the outright world speed sailing record – then just over 45 knots.
They were proposing to build a radical new kind of sailing boat.
There were pictures; a remote controlled scale model, clearly sailing at high speed.
Wow. My inner engineer stirred. The forces on such craft were, at least in theory, as balanced and as aligned as possible. Balanced. Aligned. Zen sailing. Fast.
The piece also included a photo of the two men behind the bid, taken at the 2003 Southampton Boat Show
Last weekend, the man on the right, Aussie Paul Larsen, finally helmed Vestas Sailrocket2 to a new world record of over 65 knots.
For decades the 500m record had been inching up in tiny increments, fraction of knot by fraction of knot. Assorted kiteboarders were the most recent holders. Sailrocket2 obliterated the record by over 10 knots. Paul, an Australian, put it thus: “We’ve smashed the arse off it!”
Indeed, Sailrocket2’s peak speed was 68 knots. That’s 78mph. Over 125 km/h. Wow.
But I want to return to the other man in that 2003 photo. He’s on the left in the photo below, wearing a wooly hat. He and Paul are walking back up a Namibian beach. They’re carrying the all-important GPS data logger so the new record can be verified by the World Sailing Speed Record Council.
His name is Malcolm Barnsley. He’s a British engineer. He designed Sailrocket2, and she’s very much his baby. Malcolm has spent most of his adult life trying to break the speed sailing record, and for over a decade has doggedly been tweaking and fettling this particular design.
It’s not always been plain sailing. The first version of Sailrocket proved somewhat unstable.
Paul found himself underwater, unconscious, after that one. Many designers would have given up. (Many helms, too!)
You can tell from the photos and videos that Malcolm doesn’t much fancy the limelight. He’d rather be designing foils, or modelling cavitation, the sworn enemy of all speed sailors. He’s very keen on proper attribution, notably for Bernard Smith, whose musings Malcolm has made real.
But the brutal fact of the matter is that ideas are cheap. Malcolm spent a decade making a potentially great idea work.
This wonderful bit of video, shot straight after the record breaking run, is purest engineering valediction:
“All those bloody sums… and all that stuff… it does actually mean something in the end. But you’ve got to do a lot of work to make it mean something. And we’ve done all the work.”
Malcolm Barnsley, I salute you.