50 knot out

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 24, ISSUE 3

Having conquered the Everest of world speed sailing, the 50-knot barrier, an Australian team says there is even more potential in its radical craft.

Athletics had the four-minute mile, aviation had its sound barrier and sailing had its Holy Grail: the 50-knot mark. It has been the target of many syndicates and individuals from a handful of countries in both hemispheres, with activity accelerating in the past decade as rivals inched ever-closer to the illusive mark. They came at the problem from a variety of angles and with a range of designs, from large, multi-million dollar craft to some that were little more than sailboards with outriggers.

But one hardy group of enthusiasts in Victoria has quietly persevered behind the scenes and away from the prying eyes of the media and public. Basing its campaign on a craft that looks more like a waterborne sci fi movie prop than a wind-driven sailing boat, the Melbourne-based Macquarie Speed Sailing Team recently achieved what so many others have been striving for – breaking through the 50-knot barrier. The revolutionary, purpose-built Macquarie Innovation was crewed by long-time team mates Simon McKeon and Tim Daddo, supported by a steadfast group that has been striving to achieve recognition in the rarefied atmosphere of world record speed sailing for the best part of the last 18 years.

The now ratified World Class C Record (see For the record) of 50.07 knots (92.72km/h) was set on a sheltered stretch of water at Sandy Point, two hours drive south-east of Melbourne, on March 26. It followed an earlier successful world speed sailing Class C record run of 48.15 knots set by the team on December 19.

The Melbourne group, lead by McKeon, Daddo and world renowned multi-hull designer, Lindsay Cunningham (see Quiet achiever), supported by a dedicated band of volunteers, persevered with its unique craft, overcoming many obstacles to finally achieve its goal on the remote 500m course.


McKeon, 51, an investment banker, and Daddo, 39, a physiotherapist and the only full-time member of the syndicate, have been striving to set world speed sailing records since they teamed up with Cunningham to campaign Macquarie Innovation’s predecessor, Yellow Pages Endeavour, in 1991. The trio had previously raced a succession of winning boats in the International Catamaran Challenge Trophy, otherwise known as the Little

America’s Cup, a match racing series between competitors from around the world. But an off the-cuff comment from a team supporter nearly two decades ago led to the trio sailing off on an entirely new course.

“We were racing in the Challenge Trophy down at McCrae (south-east of Melbourne) at the time and someone made the comment to Lindsay that sailboards were setting world sailing speed records overseas,” remembers McKeon. “He said something like it didn’t seem right that sailboards were going faster than multi-hulls and that surely Lindsay could do something with his background and experience. That’s pretty much how we started. Lindsay turned up a few days later with a large piece of crumpled paper with the basic design for a boat, and that’s pretty much what we ended up with.

“The boat that Lindsay showed us that day went straight into production and into the water, and within 18 months set a world record.

It was really a quite extraordinary achievement for Lindsay.”

The team enjoyed early success with its original design, Yellow Pages Endeavour, setting the World Sailing Speed Record of 46.52 knots in 1993. With lessons learned from its early efforts, team members decided to incorporate various modifications into the new Macquarie Innovation and have spent the past 15 years – and countless hours surveying the winds and waters of Sandy Point – honing their skills and fine-tuning their craft specifically in search of the 50-knot barrier.


“It’s actually been a large-scale science project driven by Tim and Lindsay,” says McKeon of the record-setting campaign.

“Our craft is actually not that special above the water,” says Daddo of the nevertheless radicallooking fixed-wing, triple-hull design. “All the real effort has gone into what’s below the water and that’s been a key to our success.”

Daddo explained that due to the revolutionary nature of Cunningham’s design, the team has been literally sailing in uncharted waters from a technological point of view.

“There are no text books or data banks to cover what we’ve been doing,” he said. “What Lindsay designed is essentially a sailboard cut in half, with the halves, or hulls, then placed a few metres apart for stability.”

Viewed from above, Macquarie Innovation is basically a tripod, with a pair of outer or leeward hulls to port, connected by beams to the central sail or mast. The crew pod is on the end of a third beam that is around 8m to starboard from the mast and forms the third leg of the tripod.

The fixed-sail craft is made mostly from a combination of extremely light and strong carbon fibre and composite materials, but is also surprisingly simple in some aspects of its construction, like the ‘cockpit’ – the tight confines of which Daddo and McKeon share on their record attempts. Daddo spends his time controlling the sail, while McKeon’s job is to steer the craft down the course. While you could be forgiven for assuming that the crew pod would be built to withstand high-speed mishaps and to protect its occupants, it’s actually made from very light and thin plywood. The concept, explained Daddo, is that in the event of an incident, the pair would literally crash through the plywood and into the water, hopefully avoiding a collision with any more solid objects in the process.

While leading rival teams in the US and Europe have enjoyed considerable financial and technological support, McKeon said that the Australian effort has relied almost entirely on volunteers, Cunningham’s innate brilliance and Daddo’s design and construction skills. Some financial support has also been contributed from the Macquarie Group, while Club Marine and other sponsors have contributed resources and products.

“Our syndicate has been very much run on the smell of an oily rag, especially in comparison to some of the overseas teams,” said McKeon. “We don’t have the luxury to do unlimited testing and whereas some (overseas) campaigns are seven-figure efforts, we are very much at the other end of the scale from a financial point of view.”


A major key to the team’s success has been the choice of location for its record attempts. Sandy Point is located near the mouth of Shallow Inlet, which is protected from the full brunt of southwesterly winds blowing in off Bass Strait by a narrow sand spit. It’s the combination of steady winds – ideally between 18 and 25 knots – and relatively calm water that has made the area ideal for the team’s record campaign.

The enormity of their achievements and the time, effort and commitment of syndicate members are put into perspective when considering that the quest for optimum sailing conditions can result in days or weeks of inactivity waiting for a few minutes of ideal wind or water.

“Overall, our actual total sailing time is probably down to a matter of minutes spread over the 15 years,” explained McKeon.

Typically, the team will nominate a 28-day time slot in which to make a record attempt. At least some key team members will have to remain onsite throughout this period to monitor conditions and alert the rest of the team if the weather is looking favourable.

Speaking of which, Macquarie Innovation can whistle along at 50-plus knots, while the wind driving it is blowing at just 17 or so knots – or a mere onethird of the craft’s outright speed. It’s an anomaly sometimes mystifying to non-sailors. McKeon explains the discrepancy as being the product of opposing forces between the wind on the sail and the water on the foils attached to the hulls.

“You end up with forces being applied in two different directions,” he said. “The wind force applied to the sail and a counter force under the water on the hulls and foils. It’s a bit like squeezing a pip between your fingers; squeeze hard enough and in the right direction and it will shoot out. That’s the principle we rely on for our speed.”

A key to the speed potential of the craft is the design and shape of the underwater foils, which are, in effect, a series of mini keels designed to provide sideways resistance and directional stability as the wind force pushes against the sail. Unless the foils are designed to be extremely efficient, speed will be sacrificed, along with directional stability. It is a delicate balance and slight adjustments can result in major effects on the craft’s performance.

Having now climbed their Everest, McKeon, Daddo and Cunningham could be forgiven for resting on their laurels. And to some extent, that’s exactly what they plan to do – at least for a while as the significance of the team’s achievement sinks in.

But like all competitors, there’s a glint in their collective eye when asked what’s next.

For the record

World sailing records are ratified by the London-based World Sailing Speed Record Council under the auspices of the International Sailing Federation. The WSSRC has a number of requirements in regard to sailing speed records, the outright and class records being run over a 500m course, with the average speed qualifying as the record.

An impartial judge acceptable to the WSSRC must be present during the record attempt to witness and authenticate the record.

In the case of the Macquarie Speed Sailing Team’s record, its speed was monitored by a dual GPS system accurate to within 10mm and recording boat position 10 times per second. An atomic clock timed the distance covered and an average overall speed was computed from the elapsed time over the calculated distance of the run, with tidal influence and flow factored into the final figure. At times Macquarie Innovation was actually travelling at better than 54 knots (100km/h) to achieve its record average.

The team’s record is listed under the Council’s Class C category. The Council has a separate listing for the World Sailing Speed Record, considered to be the outright record listing and currently held by kite surfing Frenchman Alexandre Caizergues with a speed of 50.57 knots.

The distinction between personal sailing craft, such as kite surfers, and boats or yachts has been somewhat contentious amongst speed sailing aficionados, with many purists regarding kite surfers as being separate to other water craft. In fact, up until November last year, kite surfers were not eligible for the outright record honours. But the Council has since confirmed their inclusion, despite some heated opposition from some sections of the sailing speed record fraternity.

But as Tim Daddo says, the Macquarie Innovation 50-knot milestone was set on a sailing craft carrying two crew.

“We are now quite clearly the fastest sailing boat and while we applaud the accomplishments of the kite surfers, we don’t consider that we are really competing with them,” he said.

“The kiters utilise techniques that were previously banned and techniques that we didn’t use with Macquarie Innovation. We are now investigating the use of these new techniques, probably with a different and very radical craft. But regardless of the outcome of our research, we believe we’ve accomplished our mission and that was to be the first boat to exceed 50 knots on the water.”

Quiet achiever

You would be hard-pressed to find a more self effacing and unassuming world record holder than Lindsay Cunningham. The 74-year-old engineer has been the intellectual driving force and patron of Macquarie Innovation and previously Yellow Pages Endeavour right from the beginning. His original drawings and models bear an amazing similarity to the current craft, given that they were highly experimental at the time and had only been tested on the virtual waters of their creator’s imagination, prior to becoming reality.

Cunningham has a long history of successful sail competition. His father, Charles, was a pioneer in the design, building and racing of multi-hull craft, creating such iconic designs as the Quickcat, which inspired so many to embrace sailing catamarans. Over 2000 Quickcat plans were purchased by amateur builders, while hundreds of do-it-yourself kits were sold.

When Charles passed away in 1986, Lindsay assumed the multi-hull mantle and was a driving force for many years in C Class and Little America’s Cup competition.

“Dad was a compulsive boat designer,” said Cunningham, “and we worked together on many of his designs.”

From the start, Lindsay adopted a minimalist approach to the world record quest. With little in the way of financial support, he recognised that the team had to approach the project with the aim of making the most from its relatively meagre resources.

“The real question from the start was how do you configure the hulls and if you make the design too large you are going to need a lot more money to build it and fund it,” he explained.

“We needed something that had low drag and was highly efficient, with plenty of righting moment for the size of the sail.”

“Initially, I looked at both planing hulls and hydrofoils, but decided that stability issues with hydrofoils ruled them out. Then I looked at high-speed powerboats and their planing hull designs. As their speed increases, their surface area in the water reduces, as does friction. So I used that basic principle in the hull designs.”

Very early in the program it became obvious that the initial design was close to optimum for a world record-setting sail craft. It was simply a matter of fine-tuning various elements before the team began to have an impact on the record books.

The design of the foils on the hulls proved crucial to control and speed and has had more than a little to do with the team’s recent successes, explained Cunningham.


Curiously, while he has had so much input into the team’s exploits, Cunningham has not been present at either of its most recent landmark moments.

“No, I missed the December record and wasn’t there when they broke the 50 knots either,” he said. “I get too nervous watching the runs and I don’t really have the patience for all of the waiting around.”

When questioned about the outright potential of Macquarie Innovation, Cunningham says matter-of-factly that it is capable of significantly higher speeds.

“I think 57 knots (105.56km/h) is achievable under the right circumstances,” he said. “If we could get a steady breeze of around 24 to 25 knots, we could go as fast as 54 or 55 knots and maybe even as high as 57 if we could get steady 25-knot winds. However, the wind is inherently turbulent and you have to be very lucky to be on the course at low tide, in daylight, and with a steady 25-knot wind from the south-west for the 18 seconds that is necessary to complete the course.”

Cunningham believes that 57 knots is close to the design limit of his craft. To go any faster would require an entirely new boat.

“The main problem is cavitation on the foils at around 57 knots,” he explained. “We lose sideways resistance if we get what is known as ‘super cavitation’ on the foil surfaces. The pressure drops as the water accelerates around each side of the foil and at around 57 knots the low pressure causes the water to vapourise, reducing the side force available. The drag is also increased, while the speed is reduced and control can be lost. It is possible to use supercavitating foils, but because they have a much lower lift/drag ratio, the same speed is harder to achieve.

Nevertheless, he is rightfully proud of the team’s achievements, though typically modest in his assessment of his own role in its success.

“It took years to get there and grab the record, so it does feel terrific,” he said. “But so much of it was because of the persistence of Tim and Simon and the whole team, really. It’s been absolutely terrific to achieve what we have, but my contributions were miniscule in the overall scheme of things.”

we are still left with some unanswered questions as to whether we can go faster

“Well, it’s taken 15 years out of our lives to achieve what we have, so one issue we have as a team is where do we find the energy to refocus and go forward from here,” said Daddo. “Having said that, though, we are still left with some unanswered questions as to whether we can go faster – and if that’s possible, then by how much.

“Logically, we could continue and see how much faster we can go, but that’s a continually moving target. And with the advent of the acceptance of kites (see For the record) by the WSSRC, there is potentially an entirely new design field open to us that we are only now allowed to consider.

“But the main thing is that no one else can say they beat us to 50 knots in a sail boat.”