The World Sailing Speed Sailing Record Council celebrates its 40th birthday this year and 2012, in many ways, has been a momentous one for sailing.
The Olympic Sailing Competition was contested at Portland, which was also the birth-place of speed sailing and of the WSSRC, which was set up to provide fair and accurate measurement of speeds achieved under sail.
Today, the fastest speed under sail is 65.45 knots, achieved by Paul Larsen (AUS) on Vestas Sailrocket 2 in a WSSRC supervised event at Walvis Bay, Namibia.
It is somewhat ironic that the creation of the World Sailing Speed Record Council resulted from the boastful claim of a paint company. This outfit, which made a special soft graphite paint, announced that the C-Class catamaran Lady Helmsman, (which was indeed a very fast boat) had sailed at 30 knots. This so annoyed Bernard Hayman, editor of Yachting World that he demanded to know how this speed had been measured and was told that by sailing close to the promenade of Southend on Sea, the boat could be paced by a car. That was ridiculous, but inspired the magazine to propose a new event, devoted entirely to measured speed. The Royal Yachting Association agreed to organize it and after an extensive search Portland Harbour was selected as the best venue and, because of its geography, 500m was determined as the distance to be sailed.
From the outset it was intended that the World Sailing Speed Record could be attempted anywhere in the world. The first event was held in 1972 and was won convincingly by the 60ft proa Crossbow, specially designed and built for the newspaper proprietor Timothy Colman, with a speed of 26.30 knots, measured by stopwatch on a course marked by a circle of buoys. So much for the painters and their 30 knots!
Colman kept up his involvement for another six years and the second Crossbow eventually reached 36.00 knots while the nearest rival, the hydrofoiler Icarus, could only manage 28.15 knots. If the only possible record-breaker would have been a hugely-expensive multihull, then the enthusiasm could have died, but it was saved by two things: a strong interest in this new game from other countries, especially France and Holland, and the invention of the Windsurfer. This sailboard and thousands of imitators was cheap, potentially fast, and easy to carry on a car roof. In 1986 Pascal Maka of France blew the Crossbow era away with a speed of 38.86 knots, sailing not at Portland, but at Sotavento in Spain. The Portland course was converted from the circle to a straight line along the beach, but received a fatal setback when French enthusiasts saw the possibility of constructing a special course to take full advantage of the famous Mistral wind. The 'French Trench' at Stes Maries de la Mer enabled sailboards to increase their speeds dramatically to a fraction below 50 knots by 2008 before it, too, became a victim of exotic locations such as Luderitz in Namibia. In any case, the contribution of the organizers had long since changed from being an event manager to a global ratification authority, providing rules and supervision to every possible record under sail.
There followed a fascinating era in which the outright world record was forced slowly upwards by a non-stop battle between boards and boats - or rather engins as the French describe them. In Australia an unremitting effort by Lindsay Cunningham and his team was finally rewarded when Macquarie Innovation touched 50 knots in 2009. Meanwhile the British-built inclined rig machine Sail Rocket was transported to Namibia for a series of attempts which came to a climax late this year. In France, the long development of the big foiler l'Hydroptère was rewarded by a small step upwards to 50.17 knots, only to see it raised again the following year by the kite-boarder Rob Douglas who bettered 55 knots in Namibia.
Just one month ago the record was broken again by Vestas Sailrocket 2 in Walvis Bay, Namibia. Steered by Paul Larsen, Vestas Sail Rocket 2, sailed the 500-metre course in 14.85 seconds with a speed of 65.45 and once again raised the bar in speed sailing.
A huge increase in WSSRC's work came in 1988 when it took on responsibility for offshore and passage records. This happened during the chairmanship of Sir Peter Johnson who was an experienced Ocean Racing skipper himself. No-one could possibly have imagined the extraordinary number of distance records that now exist - think only of the transatlantic and round the world courses that are under almost constant attack by craft and crews of every kind. There could be no more challenging course than around the world and its iconic status was given a powerful boost when a French group donated the Trophee Jules Verne for the first crew to do it in less that the magic figure of 80 days. This 'barrier' was surmounted by the legendary French sailor Bruno Peyron in just 79 days, 6 hours in 1993. In the following year there was a highlydramatic contest between the catamaran Enza New Zealand and the trimaran Lyonaisse des Eaux, each of which knocked about 3 days off the record. But the really astonishing fact is the current record, set by Loick Peyron and crew in the trimaran Banque Populaire 5, in just 45 days, 13 hours.
Once a record is established there follows an effort to establish what might be called special versions of it such as 'single-handed', 'by a woman' or by a limited type of yacht such as 'mono-hull', 'Up to 40ft in length'. Nowadays WSSRC has a full list of categories which can apply to any course. However, the Council does not recognize human condition records such as "youngest" or "oldest".
A popular new category, on the other hand, is for yachts with 'powered sailing systems'. This is because there is a new breed of big and fast cruiser-racer sailing yacht that cannot be handled safely or effectively without powered winches. Major races such as the Volvo Ocean Race permit moveable keels and ballast, and so it makes sense for WSSRC to recognize their best times.
Increasingly offshore records depend on satellite navigation systems such as GPS to verify them, and there was a huge step forward in the ratification procedure when Stan Honey, the well-known offshore navigator and electronics wizard, developed a small, portable GPS logger which can be placed aboard any yacht wishing to attempt an offshore record. This is known as the WSSRC 'Black Box' and is crucial in proving exactly where a yacht has been during a lengthy passage. In spite of this, there is still a requirement for starts and finishes to be witnessed by human eyes, which are looking keenly for any deviation from the rules, such as the number of people on board.