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They exploit the wind and defy the waves: When the catamarans race each other across the sea at big sports events like now in Rio de Janeiro, the TV viewers will gasp in awe. In the future however, the plan is to have the sailors fly across the water before the spectators‘ very eyes. Sailing professional Roland Gäbler is working with Evonik to build a new highspeed boat that will be sailed close to the coast and will lift out of the water even with light winds.
When it comes to sailing, Roland Gäbler has seen and done it all. The elite sportsman from Germany has won more than 70 international championships, is a multiple world and European champion and was a bronze-medal winner at the Sydney Olympic Games. But this 52-year-old still has one unfulfilled dream: He wants to have sailing events take place in stadiums full of people.
“Many regattas take place far away from their audience because the boats need the open spaces and the wind on the open sea,” says Gäbler. “And that’s a real pity. The people should be able to sit on the beach or on the quay and see the catamarans from there. Like in a stadium where you can almost touch them.” Roland Gäbler means what he says. After the competition and even though he’s still aching from the effort and would like nothing better than a hot shower, the 52-year-old takes time to meet the spectators, answer their questions and sign autographs. Sailing you can touch is what Gäbler calls it. Sailing for everybody. But he knows that the reality is quite different.
Roland Gäbler is both a critic and a fan. His enthusiasm for the strength of the water and the power of the wind is infectious. He is captivated by the concept of man and nature becoming athleticism and art while sailing. “The maritime culture is close to our hearts,” says Gäbler referring to himself and his wife Nahid, with whom he has been sailing since 2009. Once before, he was close to realizing his dream of bringing sailing to the public. In 2003, Gäbler established the Champions Race, a race series with short exciting races held close to the spectators. “Back then, the boats didn’t have enough power,” he says now, 13 years later. The catamarans were dependent on the vagaries of the wind. If it was too calm, which is quite common close to the coast, they couldn’t start. To the great disappointment of the spectators. “Who’s going to sit around for an hour or two hoping that the wind will pick up so that the race can start? Nobody.”
The SpeedFoiler™ should do away with all the old problems associated with sailing. In cooperation with Evonik, the specialty chemicals group based in Essen, Gäbler has developed a carbon catamaran which will be sailed by two persons and is ideal for the conditions prevailing close to the coast. With a length of 7.62 meters and weighing only 178 kilos, this new boat is relatively small and light. At the same time, it has a very large sail. The result is that, even in light winds, the SpeedFoiler™ can lift out of the water.
It’s called foiling in the world of sailing. The foils look like bent swords and are located at the center underneath both hulls. They function like the wings on an airplane. Once the sailboat gets moving with the wind, the foils generate uplift and lift the hull out of the water. The resistance decreases and the boat accelerates on the foils. “We can reach speeds of 70 kilometers per hour – and all within sight of the spectators,” says Gäbler.
The low weight of the SpeedFoiler™ is, however, just one side of the equation. The catamaran has to be extremely stable to defy the forces of nature. It has to be immune to wind and water, salt and sunlight. The special material for the SpeedFoiler™ has been developed and produced by Evonik: The stability is ensured by resin-soaked carbon fibers. They are as thin as a human hair and are placed on top of each other in multiple layers. These carbon pads have the properties of woven plaits being firm and flexible at the same time. To prevent any fibers from working loose, a resin holds them in the correct shape. This works according to the principle of a two-component adhesive. Only when combined with the Evonik product VESTANAT® PP and the hardening agent VESTAMIN®, does the resin achieve its full effect and become hard. The additive NANOPOX® then makes the material extremely resistant so that it will not break if two boats come into contact.
The rudder and the foils are made entirely of this carbon fiber composite material. To save some weight in the hulls, they are built as a sandwich structure: Composites on the exterior and on the inside, the robust but light structural foam, ROHACELL®. “With these high-tech materials, we are getting the ultimate performance from the boat,” says Dr. Gudio Streukens, a chemist at Evonik.
In this project, the specialty chemicals group is making use of its know-how and experience gained in the automotive and aviation industries. The products and the technology for the stable but light construction are already being used in Formula 1 cars and in the Airbus. “Now, we‘re getting boats to fly too,” enthuses Streukens.
And speaking of flying: Since the hull of the SpeedFoiler™ lifts so quickly, water resistance played a relatively minor role in the design of the boat. Instead, Martin Fischer, the designer, concentrated on the aerodynamics and improved the flying characteristics: The wide central section that connects both hulls and is referred to as the trampoline supports the lift. The catamaran also has different sized large sails which, depending on the wind speed, can be drawn up to twelve meters high on the mast. In strong winds, the small, 28 square-meter sailcloth is deployed. In weak winds, the Code Zero is used, a huge sail of 90 square meters – the size of a large apartment.
“The boat can be sailed in all wind conditions – from winds which cause small ripples on the water up to winds that move the trees,” says Roland Gäbler. “That includes 97 percent of all wind conditions. So you can sail practically all of the time.” The SpeedFoiler™ is as good as weather-independent. With these boats, regattas can now start on time just like football matches, Gäbler assures us. His hope is that this new type of sailing will attract more fans – to watch on TV and also to the natural stadiums of coast and beach.
The first SpeedFoiler™ is expected to be ready to sail by October 2016. Roland Gäbler and his wife, Nahid, will then put the new boat through its paces in well-known regattas such as the Kieler Woche. But this is only the beginning: “We want to establish a new international competition: The Foiling World Cup™ should see the world‘s best sailors compete against each other.” The regatta is to be held in locations worldwide, in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and in America. “It will be the Formula 1 of the future: Fast, spectacular and ecological. Wind and water are our fuel,” says Gäbler and adds: “And of course, close to the audience, sailing you can touch.”
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