It’s the first Olympic class to fully foil. BEN SAXTON gives his personal viewpoint on some of the highs and the hurdles of sailing the Nacra 17.
It is a very exciting time because now the Nacra 17 Olympic class is foiling, we have just had our first event – the European Championships at Kiel, Germany – and it was great. And I don’t just say that because myself and my new crew Katie Dabson came away with a great bronze medal!
Katie and I have known each other for a long time, and her experiences crewing many boats, most recently a 470, have obviously made her very ready for the challenge ahead in the Nacra.
What are the technical developments, and the challenges we all face? Who’s looking strong
at the moment, and what is next?
The Nacra 17 Olympic class has just ‘evolved’ into its full foiling MkII style. For the last Rio Olympic style we had MkI ‘C’ shaped boards and normal rudders. This meant we had some lift but by no means could we foil steadily. Now the rudders have a ‘T’ shape which means we have a lot of lift from the horizontal lower section of the foil. The MkII boards have a ‘Z’ shape meaning the top third is vertical then it angles in towards the centerline, before heading vertically down again at the tip. We have lift from the middle third of the board and the rest is to prevent leeway. The biggest difference compared with the MkI Nacra 17 is the rudders.
The ‘Z’ main foil is designed to work with all four foils in the water, so we do not lift the windward one like some foiling catamarans do.
Does it work? We got our boats only a few weeks ago and we are still learning so much, but at a glance the answer is yes. Downwind they work well. We foil steadily in 6kt of wind and in 20kt of wind. It is really impressive how little wind it takes us to foil downwind. In over 15kt of breeze the boat is really fast and extreme downwind! The other impressive aspect is how we are able to manoeuvre the boat on the foils. The easiest wind to sail on the foils is 12-15 kts. We have achieved foiling gybes, however many people have not completed one yet; it’s a very difficult boat to sail compared with other foiling ones. Personally I think this is a good thing. Foiling hoists and drops are easier than gybes, and certainly make for a good spectacle. Being able to hoist on the foils makes the races much better as before we used to be really slow exiting the windward mark.
The class is having some teething problems with the new foiling boats, but this was always a risk, and personally I am confident that they will be overcome and the class will provide a great spectacle. Before the Europeans we all did a lot of practice foiling upwind, and compared with others who were trying to foil, Katie and I were flying. However, to our disappointment at the recent Europeans it turns out the most optimal VMG was often to not foil. This is because of the low angle we have to sail in order to get the boat to foil upwind. Compared to a Moth that heels to windward when foiling, the Nacra 17 has a lot of leeway (slipping sideways) when on the foils. So we found that foiling was better used as a tactical tool rather than a VMG mode. Often the gain of foiling was outweighed by the loss if we got foiling wrong.
Skimming in and out of the waves at the moment seems the best mode for us. Don’t be disappointed as we were still achieving high speeds, and I’m sure that with more practice the whole fleet will be mastering foiling a lot more.
Going back to my earlier point I think it is good that as an Olympic class that this boat is hard to sail perfectly – I just hope Nacra haven’t gone too far, and the foiling upwind is best in the future.
Foiling in large waves will always be difficult though! The foiling Nacra is definitely harder, and more dramatic than its predecessor and I have no doubt that this class will be the pinnacle of our sport of sailing. Olympic sailing always has been the toughest and purest racing in the world, which is why as a whole it is the pinnacle of our sport too.
There are two other major updates to the Nacra 17 compared to the boat I sailed at the Olympics in Rio 2016. The spinnaker is a new flatter design, and the boat has a carbon inner skin. The flatter spinnaker is because of the higher speeds that we are now sailing downwind, and it is a great development. Also it means we are sailing with it upwind in light winds. Words don’t describe how much of a great thing I think this is. Suddenly the sport is athletic and physical in light winds, and we are much faster,