SP80 boat ready to take off
The SP80 team has just attached a kite to its sailboat, in another step towards its goal of breaking the current world record and reaching a speed of 150 km/h. The SP80 venture, now in its fifth year, is pooling the skills of EPFL students and alumni to build an ultra-fast sailboat powered only by the wind.
The SP80 team has swapped the endless concrete slabs of the Renens industrial park for the scenic coastal town of Leucate in southern France. That’s where the team is now based – and where it hopes to beat the world sailing speed record next year. The current record of 65.45 knots (121.21 km/h) was set by Paul Larsen and his crew back in 2012.
More specifically, the team hopes to achieve a speed of 80 knots (150 km/h) in the waters off Rouet beach. They’ve just attached an innovative kite to their boat. The goal of setting a new world record is galvanizing the team, pushing them to think creatively, run models, build and test – and then start all over again with a better idea until their design is just about perfect. It’s hard work with little downtime, but the prospect of success (coupled with large volumes of coffee) is pushing the team members through the fatigue. “If you’re committed to something and have ideas, then you’ll always find a way forward,” says Mayeul van den Broek, CEO of SP80 and one of its cofounders, along with Benoît Gaudiot and Xavier Lepercq. “Of course, it takes a lot of time and sacrifice, but you really can go far.”
The three cofounders met five years ago at the Hydrocontest sailing competition. Since then, they’ve turned their shared vision into a startup with prestigious sponsors and contributions from over 80 EPFL alumni. Today, around 50 people are involved in the SP80 venture, all excited about the prospect of harnessing the wind to break the speed record. In addition to a company of 11 employees, the venture includes 23 EPFL students of the SP80 student association– a cross-disciplinary project under EPFL’s MAKE initiative. The students are coached by Robin Amacher, a materials engineer and avid sailor since childhood, and advised by Prof. Véronique Michaud. “It’s a fantastic experience,” says Tanguy Desjardin, president of the SP80 association and a Master’s student in the final year of his mechanical engineering program. “While breaking the record is our ultimate goal, we’re also building something together and absorbing a lot of information. We’re learning by doing, with the 'hands in the glue' you learn. All this is a real benefit to our education.”
An unconventional kite
Desjardin has been involved in the SP80 venture since 2020 and is currently head of the kite design group. He’s seen the boat change over the years, and he’s learned to “get by on little sleep”: it was in the middle of the night that the team tested their first prototype (“it didn’t even float”) and, later, experimented with their new kite-based system on an airport runway. “The kite is where we’ve got the most work to do,” says Desjardin. “We need to engineer a structure that spans from 20 m² to 50 m² and that can withstand the forces generated by propelling the boat at ultra-high speeds.”
While breaking the record is our ultimate goal, we’re also building something together and absorbing a lot of information. We’re learning by doing, with the 'hands in the glue' you learn. All this is a real benefit to our education.
Meanwhile, Thomas Velin, an EPFL Master’s student in mechanical engineering who’s working with SP80 for his degree project, developed a software program that can run rapid simulations of different kite shapes. “The whole process requires us to invent new things, think out of the box and break with convention. It’s R&D in its purest form,” he says. “We get very little hands-on experience in our classes at EPFL, and SP80 gives us a chance to apply what we’ve learned. I’ve gotten a lot out of the project. And it’s not often that you get to take part in all steps of the development process up to and including the manufacturing stage with suppliers.”
The SP80 boat is 10 meters long and 7.5 meters wide and boasts an incredibly sleek design with superventilating hydrofoils and parts that had never been created before. It was built by Persico Marine, an Italian yacht-building company. Through this feat of engineering, SP80 paves the way to entirely new forms of wind propulsion. “It’s important for both the SP80 company and our student club to make sure the R&D continues even after our record-setting attempt,” says Desjardin. “We want to apply what we’ve learned to make maritime transport in general more sustainable.”
Helmets and oxygen masks
For now, the SP80 team is focused on testing the new kite. They’ve spent the past few months integrating all systems into the boat and finalizing its power module – a critical component that balances the upward force generated by the kite with the downward force produced by the main hydrofoil. The power module is both lightweight and capable of resisting the stresses produced at high speeds.
If you’re committed to something and have ideas, then you’ll always find a way forward. Of course, it takes a lot of time and sacrifice, but you really can go far.
The boat’s two pilots are van den Broek, who operates the main controls, and Gaudiot, who handles the kite. Their next task will be to practice sailing the boat at increasingly elevated speeds. “If the boat capsizes, it won’t break– but it will fill up with water,” says van den Broek. “So we’ve got to learn how to get out quickly if needed.” The pilots must wear helmets and oxygen masks when they sail, and they’ve both completed safety training developed specifically for their boat, given by experts who also train helicopter pilots. It’s easy to see why safety is so important given that the SP80 boat will travel some 100 km/h faster than a regular motorboat (which usually travels at around 50 km/h). For a boat rocketing along at 150km/h, even the smallest design detail is important and there’s no room for operational error. The team still has a few more coffee-filled nights ahead.
Translated from French