Speed sailing record: A global battle for dominance

The history if the world speed sailing record is one of battles between boats, windsurfers and kitesurfers all vying for the ultimate prize

Though there have been sailing boats and sailing craft on the earth almost as far back as history is able to record, it was not until relatively recently that a speed sailing record was introduced.

As such, although the motor car is a newer invention than the sailboat (by many thousands of years) it was not until 1972 that the fist official sailing speed record was set, fully 94 years after the first car set the first land speed record.

There are many reasons for this. Partly it is down to the difficulty of accurately recording speed in the water and partly that sailboats and sailing craft had long been used for transportation and, as such, record setting was all about covering significant distances (crossing oceans, or moving cargo over long stretches of water) in a short time, but a time that was measured in hours and days.

Speed for a sailing boat then, as now for the most part, was about maintaining high average speeds over long distances. The idea that you might try to create a sailboat that could attain a high peak speed over and above anything else was not really something that people thought about doing that much.

When discussing the sailing speed record and world’s fastest boat, mostly people are referencing the World Sailing Speed Record Council’s (WSSRC) 500m record – often called the ‘outright’ speed record and the first to be ratified by then newly formed WSSRC in 1972. But there are many other sailing speed records now, all ratified by the WSSC.

Aside from the outright sailing speed record the 1 nautical mile record and the 24 hour record are both highly sought after records. The 1 nautical mile can often be competed in a craft designed for the outright record, but the 24 hour record requires ocean-going yachts as the current record pace of 37.83 knots means covering a distance of 907.9 nautical miles in the 24 hour period.

Speed sailing record venues

Initially speed sailing records were set at events run in conjunction with the WSSRC where any number of vessels designed for outright speed would compete over a predetermined 500m course.

Typically these venues would feature a stretch of water that was flat enough that waves would not be an issue and was also likely to have some decent wind at the time of the event.

Weymouth & Portland

Weymouth & Portland, UK was the home of early speed records

In the early days, Portland near Weymouth in the UK (the sailing venue for the 2012 Olympic Games) was the effective home of speed sailing and saw the first 7 records all set there. With the sheltered harbour and regular strong winds – particularly in the autumn it was a great venue.

However, as windsurfers and other craft that could be sailed in shallower water came to the fore in speed sailing other venues were found, or created, which took the flat water and high wind concept a step further.

One of the most famous speed sailing venues of the speed sailing world is the Saintes Maries de la Mer Speed Canal, know as either ‘The Canal’ of ‘The French Trench’. This is a man-made shallow canal that was dug in a west-northwest/east-southeast orientation designed to take advantage of the incredibly strong Marin and Mistral winds that blow in that location.

This venue essentially became home to the world speed sailing record throughout the late 80s until the early 2000s.

Another (semi) man-made venue, which worked better for kitesurfers took over as the home from the early 2000s onwards, reflecting the move away from windsurfers holding the record to kite surfers vying for the record.

Zara Davis at the Luderitz speed canal/ Photo: Wikimedia / Walnut1340

This venue in Luderitz, Namibia features a 1 km by 7 km lagoon west of Lüderitz, where between August and March every year there is a consistent, strong wind, blowing from the south at the perfect angle of 140 degrees to the course.

Initially this course was used relatively untouched to set records but man-made elements have since been introduced to reduce chop and perfect the sailing angle, so that now, the venue resembles The Canal in France.

Despite these three venues between them being the locations for the vast majority of speed sailing records being set, others came here and there as individual challenges went in search of the perfect venue for their craft – or got lucky with the perfect wind and wave state elsewhere.

Speed sailing record history

As we can see from the changing venues over time, the history of the speed sailing record is that of certain types of craft coming to dominate over long periods of time before being knocked from their perch.

Crossbow II

Crossbow II. Photo: Getty Images

Crossbow and Crossbow II

The fist speed sailing record was set by Tim Colman in his Proa, Crossbow. She was 56 feet long and had a 60 foot mast, but the main hull was a mere 22 inches wide.

A Proa features more than one hull but in an asymmetric configuration with the smaller hull essentially providing righting moment to counter the forces of the sails. The smaller, outrigger hull on Crossbow sat 30 feet from the main hull and was where the crew sat in order to add their weight to the righting moment of the boat.

In 1972 Crossbow claimed the record for the world’s fastest yacht at 26.3 knots. Coleman would set another two records in the boat in 1973 (29.30 knots) and 1975 (31.10 knots).

Coleman then launched another boat, Crossbow II, designed to bat his previous records.

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