It is a gray and wet day in February on the pontoons of Port la Forêt, the Mecca of French solo ocean racing. Olivier de Kersauson, a man who has never hesitated to find the right words, once renamed the place ‘The valley of the fools’ (the valley of the fools). Michel Desjoyeaux, Armel le Cleac’h or Jean Le Cam, all local notables, take this as a compliment.
But standing in front of this boat (I’m not sure you can even call it a sailboat?), With no mast, boom, stanchions or any apparent paraphernalia, I begin to wonder if this local madness is not contagious.
At first glance, the ArmorKite 650 is as intriguing as its deck is empty. To navigate it, we will clearly have to forget everything we have learned to take for granted. In addition, although it may not be seen at first glance, there is no keel, or even ballast. The stability comes from the shape of the hull, thanks to a 2.2 m (7 ft 3 in) beam and a design reminiscent of the Mini Transat 650 class.
The motorized wing provides good boat speed on or out of the wind. Photo credit: Chloé Dubset
It is therefore not surprising that the architect of ArmorKite, Etienne Bertrand, not only participated in the legendary transatlantic race in 2011, but designed around fifteen development boats.
Maxime and Marc Denoix from ArmorKite gave me a brief briefing before leaving – and it was brief. The ArmorKite only has two trimming lines and a drawbar; the boat can be double sailed easily. Pushing off the pontoon by hand and out of the port powered by the small outboard is especially easy with a hull weighing only 273 kg (602 lb). Without ballast or rigging and therefore very little structure, the weight is reduced to a minimum.
Once in the bay, however, our sail is radically different from a traditional outing. First, a sea anchor is deployed aft to limit drift while we prepare and “hoist” the kite. Even more unusual, we contact the coast guard by VHF to warn them of our next test sail: on two occasions well-meaning sailors have called for help after seeing a boat without a mast, apparently dismasted and attempting to put up a rig. of fortune by deploying the kite!
The article continues below …
First sailing and surfing, then windsurfing, before kitesurfing, paddleboarding and more recently the foil arrive to illuminate water sports …
As the mist rose from the surface of the water in the picturesque port of Morges, on the north shore of the lake …
The wind is light, around 7 knots, the theoretical minimum necessary to get the kite out of the water. So we take out the largest sail, at 25m² (270ft2). There are five size options, at 8, 13, 21, 23 and 25 m² (89, 140, 226, 248 and 270 feet2) for all types of wind from 7 to 35 knots.
The kite is placed on the roof, well flocked in its sail bag, and the five lines connected (two front lines, two back lines and a fifth line) to the boat via a transverse Harken track. The wing flies free and to leeward upwind, limiting any heeling, although the design allows the ArmorKite to heel up to 15 °.
Once connected to the boat, the kite can be unfolded and the leading edge inflated thanks to the on-board electric pump. After inflating the kite, the five lines are unrolled simultaneously using the electric winch. With Thibaud Grasset, board sports specialist at ArmorKite at the helm and Maxime Denoix at the helm, they launch the kite at a perfect pace – but they have more than 50 outings to their credit. This is useful because in this light wind range the kite tends to stick to the water, and takeoff can be tricky.
Launching the kite is the trickiest part of the navigation. Photo credit: Chloé Dubset
Finally the wind rises to 9 knots, the kite takes off, the drugs are brought on board and the boat takes off! The speed is immediately exhilarating. We make a few turns, sailing crosswind, going almost at wind speed.
The ArmorKite is extremely sensitive on the tiller, and also sensitive to the positioning of the crew, whose total weight can easily equal that of the boat itself. It is important to keep a close eye on the longitudinal and side trims. A center footrest would help you keep your balance at the helm, but the feeling of gliding across the water is delicious.
We are far from breaking the 19 knot record that the team has already reached, but sailing at 10-12 knots when the real wind is barely 15 knots is more than enough to put a big smile on your face.
The ArmorKite’s current speed record of 19 knots (SOG) is sure to be broken as the team exploits it to its full potential. Photo credit: Chloé Dubset
When it comes to going upwind, skeptics will say that a kite cannot go upwind. But the ArmorKite holds a course upwind comparable to a keelboat, sailing 30 ° to either side of the true wind, at speeds very close to a Mini 650 of 6-7 knots in 10-12 knots of wind. . But where the boat gets even more impressive is downwind. We had 9 knots displayed on the GPS with 11 knots of wind behind. What conventional boat could offer this?
The power developed by the kite is impressive, and sometimes surprising; you have to hang on for gybes, for example. Especially, if there is an error in the angle of the rudder or the wing, or a lack of synchronization between the helmsman and the adjuster, instead of the pulling power turning into speed, it causes the boat to tip over. on its edge.
We experienced this during a wild “downloop”; Denoix got their hands on the automatic fifth row release, and the boat came down the right way – unlike the two capsizes they already experienced in testing sails, when they had to right the boat like a dinghy.
Picking up the fin with one hand while controlling two lines with the other is the only time things get a bit tricky when navigating with two hands without an autopilot. Photo credit: François Tregouet
So, if there is a foiling revolution underway, will the next one be a kite revolution? There is still a long way to go before this solution can be universally adopted. Even if learning to handle the kite only takes a few weeks, according to its inventors, the constant attention and necessary adjustments to the kite during navigation put a real brake on its use outside of competition.
If they are tempted to test the performance of their radical design on an event like the Bol d’Or, or the Mini Transat, the designers admit that they do not yet know how to manage the necessary sleep times over such a long period. .
There are so-called self-stabilizing kites, but they are not up to par in terms of performance, with speeds reduced by 50 to 60%. Right now, the choice is between performance and peace of mind. The challenge is to reconcile the two, possibly through the development of a kite autopilot, or by adopting a faster reel winch to bring the kite back on board quickly.
In the meantime, a second boat is experimenting with some design changes, including a single swivel centerboard. This saves a maneuver, because asymmetric daggerboards require movement with each tack or jibe. With an autopilot at the helm, the whole thing takes on the appearance of a very pleasant dayboat: simple, efficient, fun and easily transportable.
LOA: 6.50 m (21 ft 3 in)
MEUGLER: 6.05 m (19 ft 8 in)
Shine: 2.20 m (7 ft 2 in)
Disorganized: 0.07-1.00 m (2 3⁄4 inches-3 feet 3 inches)
Shift: 273 kg (602 lb)
Sail surface: 8-25m2 (86-269ft²)
Design: Etienne Bertrand
First published in the May 2020 edition of Yachting World.