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Saving Hydroptere

Published on November 11th, 2020

Two strangers come together to save Hydroptere, an abandoned and rare record-breaking sailing machine. Kimball Livingston tells the story for Sailing World:

When we slowed to 22 knots, it felt like sailing in molasses. I had just driven one of the most celebrated boats in the world, L’Hydroptere, at 34 knots. Later, I’d look at 44 and try to imagine what it was like in 2009 to achieve a record-­setting 500-meter run of 52.86. That one, and a nautical-mile record of 50.17 knots, were both set in France.

I sailed aboard in California leading up to 2015, when this icon of French speed sailing set off on the classic Transpac course, Los Angeles to Honolulu, only to prove that the route held too many downwind miles for such a specialized machine. Unlike the even more specialized Vestas Sailrocket that eventually took its records away, L’Hydroptere could get around a racing triangle, but that would be awkward. It’s happy only on a reach.

In 2015, this was no longer the fastest sailing craft ever, and there was no new Transpac record. Sponsors lost interest. The boat sat. The boat was impounded. The boat baked for five years in tropical sun and then went up for auction. What could possibly go right?

Well, L’Hydroptere’s situation could come to the attention of a true individual among West Coast sailors, Chris Welsh, who saw development potential and a future in more-manageable point-to-point records. And plenty of yoodles along the way. The choice fits his profile.

For 15 years Welsh has been the owner of Ragtime, a unique, hard-chined, plywood, downwind-flying John Spencer design that has been a star—and competitive—for all of its 55 years. Ragtime is iconic in itself. No boat has sailed more Transpacs than Ragtime’s 15; few have been more successful and none more successfully updated. Its reputation, Welsh says, “hovers somewhere between revered and notorious.”

When Welsh took Ragtime back to its birthplace in 2008, that was a national occasion for New Zealand. To round out Welsh’s credentials for going his own way, I’ll add that last year he bought submersible manufacturer Deep Flight out of receivership.

Until COVID-19, you could find him touring Asia with one of his submarines slung between the hulls of the derigged giant catamaran Cheyenne, formerly Playstation and holder of trans-Atlantic, 24-hour and round-the-world records. The man has toys, and of course, when he flies around on the West Coast, he pilots his own. L’Hydroptere would not make sense in the hands of just anyone. – Full report

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