The French naval architecture firm VPLP is one of the world’s most highly regarded in offshore racing. Their latest triumph—designing the foiling monohull sailed to victory by Armel Le Cléac’h in the latest Vendée Globe. We spoke to VPLP co-founder Marc Van Peteghem about foils, Sea Bubbles and the company’s upcoming projects.
NauticExpo e-mag: How did VPLP get started?
Marc Van Peteghem: I met my partner Vincent Lauriot-Prévost at Southampton University in England. After graduating, each went his own way for three years. Vincent worked for Philippe Harlé and I worked for Gilles Vaton. In 1983 we decided to create our own firm. We began by designing a foiling multihull. The project was successful and rapidly led us to do series boats, in particular the Lagoon catamarans for the Beneteau group. Nearly 3,800 have been produced to date. We then got into racing monohulls. The first five finishers in this year’s Vendée Globe were designed by Guillaume Verdier and us.
NE e-mag: The first four boats in the Vendée Globe were equipped with foils. Is this a first?
Marc Van Peteghem: Yes, this year is the first time. I think that more and more racing boats will use foils for the simple reason that they enable the hull to leave the water, reducing resistance enormously.
NE e-mag: Was the Hydroptère, which you co-designed, the precursor of foiling boats?
Marc Van Peteghem: Foils go back a long way. The search for dynamic lift is very old. Let’s say that Hydroptère was the first offshore foiler able to completely leave the water. The problem is that Hydroptère sails really well only in flat seas with winds of about 15-20 knots. When there isn’t enough wind, it’s stuck in the water, and when there’s too much, the sea is rough and it has trouble gaining speed.
NE e-mag: What improvements have there been in foils since Hydroptère?
Marc Van Peteghem: In contrast to Hydroptère, our Vendée Globe boats don’t leave the water completely. They’re just supported, similar to our original 1983 boats. On the other hand, America’s Cup boats leave the water completely.
We’re interested in designing good boats capable of going fast in light winds without using their foils.
At VPLP we’re interested in designing good boats capable of going fast in light winds without using their foils. When a boat can go fast in light winds, you can deploy the foils early enough for maximum effect. We’re interested in such transitions.
Boat performance also depends on another factor. It must have the maximum righting moment for the minimum weight. We always try to find the best solution to this equation.
NE e-mag: Have you been aided by advances in materials?
Marc Van Peteghem: We’ve made progress thanks to our experience and the software we use. There has also been progress in construction. Today, we can build lighter boats despite using powerful foils, which add weight. We can compensate the added weight elsewhere to produce boats that are not heavier.
NE e-mag: Do skippers have to learn to sail with foils or does a computer do the bulk of the work?
Marc Van Peteghem: The calculations yield indications and starting points, but the fine tuning and foil shapes come from user experience. This varies from skipper to skipper. It’s almost as if each boat had its own custom set of foils. That reflects how each skipper wants to use them. There’s a learning curve common to them and to us.
There’s also the notion of the flight envelope. When we give skippers the tools to go faster, they must understand intuitively when they can use them safely and, conversely, when they should hold off because they’re in boat-crunching seas.
NE e-mag: What’s the downside of foils?
Marc Van Peteghem: The foils represent dynamic lift, meaning they come into play when the boat goes fast. Thus, one of the constraints is that the vessel must be going fast without foils to be able to deploy them early on. The other problem is that there are more and more floating objects in the sea, and not just fish. You run into a lot of debris, which can break the foils.
NE e-mag: You worked on the Sea Bubbles project, the “foiling taxis” driven by twin electric motors due to be tested in March on the Seine in Paris.
Marc Van Peteghem: I worked on it at the beginning, but no longer. My team and I did the calculations. Adhering to the rules set by Paris—ten knots maximum on the Seine—and today’s two hours of battery life, we wound up with a light, three-person craft closer to a scooter than an enclosed car. But Alain Thébault, who launched the project, is on another track aimed at a five-person vehicle. It’s very ambitious. We’ll see if it works.
“The Sea Bubbles project is very ambitious. We’ll see if it works.”
NE e-mag: Will recreational vessels ever have foils?
Marc Van Peteghem: Yes. They work well on powerboats and are already in use. They lift the boat a bit out of the water, reducing wetted surface and offering increased speed with the same fuel consumption. Any kind of high-speed launch could take advantage of foils. In fact, I don’t understand why there aren’t already more of them.
NE e-mag: What are you working on now?
Marc Van Peteghem: We’re working on a lot of diverse projects—the next racing foilers, beach-launched craft, sailing freighters and, of course, the coming Lagoons. We’re also working on the Komorebi boats with hybrid propulsion—both electric motors and sails—for yachts, recreational craft and commercial vessels.
NE e-mag: What is the goal of the Komorebi project?
Marc Van Peteghem: It has a double goal. First, the world is divided into sailboaters and power-boaters. What’s nice about sailboats is that you go slowly, recapturing the time none of us has enough of, the time to be with people we like, to read, to think. Power-boaters have lost the joys of the voyage, of passage making. In addition, they don’t necessarily have all the skills required to handle a sailboat. Our goal is to make the wind available to power-boaters.
Our second goal is in the realm of commercial vessels—not container ships, but oil tankers and coasters—because the environmental stakes are enormous. Remember that 90% of the world’s commerce is carried in ships. We developed a prototype 90-meter coaster we introduced in Polynesia. Trials showed reductions in fuel consumption of 30 to 42%. We’re currently negotiating with several companies and are raising funds for large-scale development.
It will be entirely automated, with nothing to adjust. Everything will happen automatically based on the speed and direction of the wind. If you decide to maintain a speed of eight or ten knots, the mix of sail and electromechanical propulsion will depend on the wind. Komorebi is a Japanese word indicating the moment when a ray of sunshine illuminates a natural setting.
This article was first published in February 2017 in NauticExpo e-magazine.