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Innovation alert | Shattering the world sailing speed record

In pursuit of their shared dream, three students in mechanical engineering at EPFL teamed up in 2016 to start looking into building the fastest sailing boat in the world.  Their aim: design a boat capable of sailing at 80 knots (150km/h) solely powered by wind, capable of breaking the existing world sailing speed record of 65 knots (121.21km/h), accomplished in 2012. And guess what? Now, they are nearly there…

The joint dream of Mayeul van den Broek, Benoit Gaudiot and Xavier Lepercq has come true with SP80, an adventure that now brings together a team of fifty people around the same goal.

The key ingredients for the successful evolution to date: passion, academic excellence and high-level partners and suppliers.

Passion-driven crew
Let’s start by looking at the passion: Mayeul has always sailed since a young age and even crossed the Atlantic; Xavier met Mayeul during their studies at EPFL and ever since, they have been sailing together; and Benoît is a junior speed record holder in kitesurfing. Driven by their enthusiasm for water and sailing sports, the three young men took up studies in mechanical engineering at the EPFL, the place that helped build the Hydroptère - one of the first boats in history to sail above the mythical 50 knot (92 km/h) speed barrier. The students met while working on the Hydrocontest: a design competition in which radio-controlled boats are tested for their speed and energy efficiency. That year, EPFL’s contender was an ambitious foiling boat that happened to have been built under the supervision of Robin Amacher, a former engineer of Hydroptère’s design team. Working with someone that had been an active member of the Hydroptère project, Xavier, Mayeul and Benoit’s dreams had never felt closer. The three of them decided to take the leap and start a new project.


Academic excellence
Given the complexity of the their undertaking, the young innovators quickly realized that they could not do it alone. Mayeul explains: “EPFL pledged its support to the team as an academic partner. This collaboration enabled SP80 to gain access to top research infrastructures, invaluable insight from professors, and gave EPFL students the opportunity to join the team.” As a result, the SP80 student association was founded in addition to the company, adding 20 more volunteer engineers and students to the team.

Powered by partners and suppliers
Asked what further helped them to professionalise the project from three people to the highly skilled and well sponsored team they are today, Mayeul explains: “2019 marked a turning point for SP80. Our first sponsor joined the quest for the record, the Swiss based company P&TS, allowing us to formalise the project and implement an official structure. The financial contribution from the partners also made it possible to create a prototype.”

Following those positive developments, the first scaled model of the future boat saw its initial tests on Lake Geneva in 2020.

With Richard Mille joining the adventure as title partner in 2021, the project experienced another significant boost and the team entrusted Persico Marine, a well-known Italian shipyard in the world of sailing, with the construction of its “small rocket”. Following years of thorough preparations, the boat was launched for the first time on Lake Geneva in August. After a week of successful towing tests on the lake, the boat is now in Leucate (France) for the first kite sailings.


Discover the built of the boat
How is such a boat that needs to combine stability with power and efficiency set up?

First, the cockpit holds the two pilots and centralises all the commands for boat steering and kite control. When reaching 80 knots (150 km/h), the necessary safety measures become close to those of a fighter jet. With this in mind, the team made a trade-off to guarantee the pilots’ safety and still retain good ergonomics and vision on the course.

Second, the kite captures the power of the wind and, coupled with the main hydrofoil, transforms it into propulsive force for the boat: the kite is the boat’s motor. To ensure optimal performances, its size is adaptable according to wind conditions with a surface area spanning from 20m2 to 50m2.

Last but not least, the power module is the most important element on the boat. This mechanical system efficiently governs the transmission of forces between the kite, the hydrofoils and the boat while maintaining the boat’s stability at high speed.

A unique sport and innovation ecosystem

Mayeul confesses that turning such a "crazy" project idea into reality would have already been possible without the unique sport and innovation ecosystem in and around Lausanne.

Besides the EPFL as academic partner as well as the sponsors, he highlights North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT), a world leader in the manufacture of light weight prepreg material, as technical partner on this project. The company is based in Renens, just some footsteps away from the EPFL, and has supplied all the carbon material necessary to build the boat.

For many partners and suppliers, the project is not only love at first sight, but also an outstanding opportunity to showcase their innovative product(s) in a pioneering challenge. In addition, the SP80 team shares their results for their partner’s research documents. Cross-sector collaboration at its best!

Driving innovation for sustainable solutions
“Whereas the boat is unlikely to be used as such after the world-record attempt, parts of it will outlast the project,” says Mayeul. “Ultimately, by breaking a record using only wind power, we want to prove that mankind is capable of achieving technological feats that go beyond the potential of fossil fuels in the long run. Our goal is to bring the innovations developed for the record to maritime transport, competitive sailing and hydroelectric power generation. One of the follow-up initiatives is to equip cargo boats with kite wings to reduce pollution.”

Click here to learn more about SP80 and the team behind it.