l’Hydroptère: The boat that can fly lands in Long Beach

The world's fastest sailboat is in Los Angeles and the crew is hoping to make their way to Hawaii faster than anyone has before.
The world's fastest sailboat is in Los Angeles and the crew is hoping to make their way to Hawaii faster than anyone has before.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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It’s not quite a boat; it’s not quite a plane. It’s l’Hydroptère, the fastest sailboat in the world. For the next week, the French boat will be docked in Long Beach to get ready for an attempt at a record run from L.A. to Honolulu.

The physics that let a plane to lift off a runway let l’Hydoptere lift just off the surface of the water and go really, really fast. It set a world record in 2009 when it sliced across the water at just over 50 knots. That’s about 57.5 miles an hour for you landlubbers.

Luc Alphand, one of the boat’s five French crewmembers, calls that kind of speed on the water “pure sensation.”

“It’s magic. It’s just like a flying carpet,” said Alphand.

It’s also fast enough for l’Hydoptere to break the sailboat speed record for an LA-to-Honolulu run. The record is four days and 19 hours … for now.

L’Hydoptere has never raced across the open sea at its top speed for a trip as long as L.A.-to-Honolulu. But Alphand said it’s not like the boat has never been tested.

“For 20 years, this boat has been built, destroyed, flipped, rebuilt and it’s very unique because it’s the only one for the moment.”

L’Hydoptere’s speed comes from its carbon fiber hydrofoils that extend into the water and thrust the boat upward. When the boat is sailing along at a good clip, all but 8 percent of its hull is in the air. Less friction with the water means more speed.

Most of the engineers who’ve worked on l’Hydoptere specialize in airplane design, but they’ve had to overcome a few marine problems, like turtles. During a 2005 attempt to break the trans-Atlantic speed record, l’Hydoptere hit a turtle the size of a small car. It broke a hydrofoil and scuttled the run.

Crewman Jacques Vincent has sailed with l’Hydroptère for seven years. He also helped re-engineer the boat for an extended run in open water.

“We did a few modifications according to the weather that we expect,“ said Vincent. “We lengthened the bow spread and we have bigger sails and we put the boat on a diet so it came out a bit lighter.”

The slimmed-down boat is a long way from the first model launched 25 years ago by designer Alain Thébault. As a boy, he dreamed of building a sailboat that could fly.

Now that vision is a reality, but it comes with little luxury.

Most of the crew won’t sleep much; there’s only a tiny room below l’Hydroptère’s deck for short naps on a thin foam pad. Most of the meals are freeze dried. But creature comforts aren’t on anyone’s mind.

“What we want is to be fast enough to break the record so that’s our only worry: to be fast enough,” said Vincent.

And once the LA-to-Honolulu run begins, nothing else matters. Alphand, who’s known in France as a champion skier, auto racer and now a sailor, will be too busy to worry about anything but speed.

“It’s a huge job to be a sailor,” said Alphand. “It’s maybe 30 jobs. You have to be a plumber, an electrician, a weatherman.”

Crewman Warren Fitzgerald has been working 12 hours a day on l’Hydroptère’s technical team. He won’t be onboard for the trip to Hawaii, but even while he waits on land, he’s not planning on sleeping much once the race starts.

“When they leave, I’ll be sleeping on my phone,” said Fitzgerald. “And hoping that they won’t call me because that means they have a technical problem or a human problem.”

Knowing the hazards, from turtles to typhoons, the l’Hydroptère crew is prepared for disaster.

“When you are in the water, you are in the water so you are alone in the middle of nowhere,” said Alphand. “You have to be ready for that, but of course you can’t think too much about that.”

The boat is now floating in Long Beach’s Rainbow Harbor while the crew waits and watches. They’re looking for perfect weather, when the winds are right and the ocean swells are below 6 feet. Larger swells could capsize the boat.

But crewman Fitzgerald isn’t worried, saying that “you just have to tell yourself it’s going to work. Otherwise, it won’t.” If the weather works, the l’Hydoptere crew thinks they will set sail – maybe lift off? - in about eight days.