Equipage: It's a Boat. It's a Plane. It's...

News from the Field, December 1996

Equipage: It's a Boat. It's a Plane. It's...

...well, we were right the first time. On the leading edge of sailing technology, a futuristic hybrid is born
By Anne Goodwin Sides

Amid the sleek, blue-blooded craft on display at the prestigious United States Sailboat Show this October, the standout was an odd-looking thing that strictly speaking isn't a sailboat at all. Part yacht, part sports car, part airplane, Sea Change is a prototype of the Zefyr 43, a space-age "Planesail" trimaran that looks as if it had been hatched in some dimly lit, top-secret corner of the Pentagon.

In reality the brainchild of British aeronautical engineer John Walker, the 43-foot craft--whose first production model is scheduled to roll off the line this month--has no traditional sails or rigging, but rather sports a single, vertical wing and a separate control tail that swivel 360 degrees to accomodate any wind direction, forming what is essentially a giant weather vane. The boat also boasts an enclosed cockpit complete with steering wheel, an automobile-like bucket seat, and an airplane-style thrust-control lever that allows you to quickly go from full bore to a complete stop or even into reverse, making it the only wind-powered boat designed to sail backward. But Walker is most proud of his patented Micromariner, a computer system that he says will automatically adjust the angle of the wing in sudden gusts to keep the boat from capsizing. "It's definitely everything it was cracked up to be," said sailing journalist Quentin Warren after a recent test spin. "You can basically parallel park the thing under sail."

Walker's first attempt at marketing the technology died in the water. He launched Blue Nova, a 54-foot trimaran rigged with two side-by-side wings, in 1990, but three years later the British magazine Yachting World published a review claiming that its test sail showed the boat to be decidedly pokier than advertised. "The market dried up completely," says Walker, who subsequently sued the magazine and won the second-largest libel award in English history, a whopping $2.25 million.

Though Walker flatly denies the criticisms leveled at Blue Nova, he did lop off both the second wing and 11 feet of hull, which he claims gives his new boat a top speed of nearly 20 knots--fast, but not blazing by multihull standards. At press time, Walker says that his Devon, England-based company, Walker Wingsail Systems, has 13 contracts in hand for the $400,000 boat. But he envisions an even larger market, betting that the legions of sailors who have tired of fussing with rigging and bagging sails will be attracted by his boat's high-tech simplicity. Predictably, this has some purists grumbling that Sea Change is less a sailboat than a computer on pontoons. While most are reluctant to gripe on the record, citing Walker's previous success in litigation, Warren willingly summed up their sentiments. "The sailing market is all about aesthetics," he explained. "Which means the advances that make the Planesail unique may only appeal to a fringe that appreciates its electronic wizardry."

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