WHEN BILLIONAIRE Steve Fossett rode a cold front across the Atlantic last October to shatter the crossing's speed record by almost two days, the news ricocheted through the sailing world and landed in South Brittany, France, at the feet of Alain Thébault. For 16 years, the skipper, now 39, has built, wrecked, refinanced, and rebuilt an unorthodox vessel that he claims will beat every one of the world's fastest boatsincluding Fossett's winning 125-foot catamaran PlayStation, which made the crossing in four days, 17 hours, 28 minutes, and six seconds. This March, he'll put his craft through final sea trials before a June effort to blow the American captain's time out of the waterand poach one the sport's most elusive benchmarks in the process.
Alain Thébault's L'Hydroptère off La-Trinite-sur-Mer, France
Thébault's secret weapon? L'Hydroptère, a 60-foot vessel that, under full sail, behaves like a giant water bug, rocketing over the waves while barely skimming the surface. At velocities above about 13 knots, "wings," or carbon-fiber foils welded beneath the outriggers, lift the whole craft out of the water by as much as 15 feetreducing drag and helping generate speeds once reserved for cars, not sailboats. Last August, off the coast of South Brittany, Thébault and crew consistently pushed L'Hydroptère to 40 on the knot meter, or just over 46 mph. "Imagine flying a glider over the water," he says. "It is like nothing else."
Except, perhaps, Fossett's PlayStationitself an impressive feat of engineering. On his fall run between New York and Lizard Point, England, Fossett averaged 26 knots. That's a good clip below L'Hydroptère's average speed in trials off France, but PlayStation had to overcome ten-foot seas, a challenge that Thébault's craft has yet to confront.
"[L'Hydroptère] is an exciting concept," says the 57-year-old Fossett, straining to sound magnanimous, "but I can't predict how many problems they have to solve. I just don't know whether they can handle rougher water."
No problem, says Thébault, countering that while L'Hydroptère has not yet faced waves higher than seven feet, his design has survived heavier seas in a simulator. "I'm very happy for Steve Fossett and his crew," he says. "They realized a wonderful performance. But I always like competition." And regardless of the challenges ahead, L'Hydroptère is clearly no underdog: Even one of Fossett's own lieutenants gives it a fighting chance. "PlayStation and a few others have probably been pushed to their limits," says Newport Beach, California-based Gino Morrelli, PlayStation's codesigner, who also crewed on the record run in October. "L'Hydroptère is the only boat in the world that has the potential to push the limit even further."