Fast forward: Are mass-market yachts ready for hydrofoil technology?

Hydrofoils have been around for over 100 years. But with the latest iterations of the America’s Cup, foiling has become top of mind for designers, builders, brands and possibly even a few buyers. Can a technology that yields big bonuses in speed and efficiency find its way into the mass market for yachts?

author icon By Ryan Swift & Peter Shadbolt | 18 March 2021


The America’s Cup may be once again flashing incredible speed and power for all to see. But the hydrofoil is not a new invention. The first experiments with hydrofoils on boats go back to the early 1900s, along with the development of the aeroplane itself.

The earliest known mention of hydrofoiling goes back to 1861, when a British engineer installed a set of wings under a boat in the Surrey Canal and noted that when the vessel was towed, it lifted out of the water.

In Italy, Enrico Forlanini began experimenting with hydrofoils a racing craft in Lake Maggiore that managed 42.5 mph in 1906.

Hydrodome number 4 was an early research hydrofoil watercraft developed by Alexander Graham Bell in the 1920s

At around the same time in Canada, Alexander Graham Bell and Frederick Baldwin were working on their own designs for a hydrofoiling boat. In 1919, Baldwin built the HD-4, which set a water speed record of 70mph.

The Canadian navy picked up on the work of Bell and Baldwin. In the 1950s, work began on developing a hydrofoiling warship with high-speed capability. In 1957, an experimental vessel, built in the UK and purchased by the Canadian navy, was launched. This vessel, the HMCS Bras D’Or, achieved speeds of 112kph on its array of angular hydrofoils.

However, the vessel was retired in 1973 and no further hydrofoiling vessels made their way to the world’s navies.

But the dream of “flying” in and over the water has persisted through the decades, and in France it found a home. In 1975, a French yachting magazine published a drawing of the Hydroptere – the first time that a high-powered sailing yacht would enter the public imagination.

Team Tabarly look on at an early model

The plan to build Hydroptere was the brainchild of Eric Tabarly, a man of near-mythic status among French sailors. Tabarly envisioned fitting a set of inward sloping hydrofoils that would provide lift, righting moment and stability to a trimaran structure – or more accurately, a monohull with two large outriggers.

By 1994, the first version of the Hydroptere had been commissioned, with French speed gurus VPLP doing the naval architecture. VPLP would go on to the naval architecture for Beneteau’s foiling Figaro 3.


Tabarly died in 1998 in a freak accident while crossing the Irish Sea, but his hopes for the Hydroptere did not go with him.

A photo from 1976 shows Tabarly sailing what appears to be a wooden prototype for the Hydroptere. Those early forays prompted new interest in the possibilities of foiling. French naval architect Philippe Briand, now famous for his work in superyachts and luxury sailboats, penned an early sketch for a catamaran with foils and powered by a kite sail in 1984.

Eric Tabarly sails an early plywood prototype

The project was by then being helmed by Alain Thebault, who with his crew and sponsors, wanted to break sailing speed records. In 2009, the Hydroptere sailed faster than 50 knots, breaking what was then considered a sound-barrier for sailing.

The Hydroptere borrowed technology from a range of sources to handle the unprecedented loads created by sailing at such high speeds. Shock absorbers built into the boat were taken from the French Rafale fighter jet.

After numerous iterations, the last version of the Hydroptere was sailed from California to Hawaii in 2015. Funds ran out and the boat was abandoned, ultimately to be left on its mooring.

The Hydroptere | Guilan Grenier /

Meanwhile, the America’s Cup had picked up the gauntlet of hydrofoiling. By 2013, traditional monohulls had been abandoned completely in favour of foiling catamarans. The latest edition of the America’s Cup is being fought out in foiling monohulls that are capable of over 50 knots – the once impenetrable speed barrier for sailing. Unlike the catamaran, the monohull design allows for “ground effect” – a cushion of air that builds up between the hull and the water surface to give added lift.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle Terrasse and his new partner, shipyard-owner Chris Walsh, purchased the ageing Hydroptere at auction in Hawaii and have begun the arduous journey of restoring the historic yacht to her former glory.

Modern foiling sails owe a debt to the Hydroptere

Terrasse, who worked on the publicity of the Hydroptere in the 1990s, says that he more or less “emptied his bank account” in order to rescue the boat from the scrapheap. The yacht is now back in Europe and Terrasse is gathering funds and technical partners to set new foiling speed records.

European aerospace giant Airbus, which partnered with the American team in its latest America’s Cup challenge, provided logistical support to Terrasse in order to bring Hydroptere back home to France.

The battle to go fast on hydrofoils, which began over 100 years ago, is back on.