Planes & Sails

Airplane pilots are attracted to sailing because there are many skills that transfer between the two activities. For example, both require knowledge of navigation, weather, and wind patterns. Pilots can use their knowledge of aerodynamics to understand how to harness the power of the wind in sailing. Additionally, sailing can help pilots develop their situational awareness and decision-making skills, which are also important in aviation.

MacGreggor 70 in split rig configuration

Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle Corporation, has used his experience in flying to change sailing by introducing flying technology and techniques. For example, he helped develop the AC72, a multihull that uses hydrofoils to lift the hulls out of the water and “fly” above the waves. This technology was inspired by the principles of aerodynamics and has revolutionized the sport of sailing. Or perhaps it has created a new sailcraft sport.

Larry Ellison Oracle No foil Trimaran

The sails on current America’s Cup boats and SailGP boats are like wings because they are designed to generate lift and propel the boat forward. The AC75, the current America’s Cup yacht, has a rotating soft-wing sail that is more complex than ever. The wing sail is designed to act like an airplane wing, generating lift as the wind flows over it. Similarly, the F50 catamaran used in SailGP also uses a wing sail to generate lift and propel the boat forward. The design of the F50 was reworked to create faster, flatter, and more stable flight. In both cases, the sails are a critical component of the boat’s powertrain and are designed to maximize the boat’s speed and performance.

Sail Wings

The complexity of a soft wing sail is partly due to the camber of the wing, which is the curvature of the sail. The camber of the sail can be adjusted to optimize the sail’s performance based on the wind conditions. Sensors may also be used to monitor the sail’s performance and adjust the camber as needed.


Surprisingly, it is possible to drop or reef a rotating soft wing sail, although the process may be more complex than with a traditional sail. The AC75 and SailGP boats do not use head sails like jibs and spinnakers because the wing sail provides enough power to propel the boat forward. The wing sail is a critical component of the boat’s powertrain and is designed to maximize the boat’s speed and performance. But it isn’t designed so much for changes in weather, like would be expected crossing an ocean. Like airplanes, a wing sailed boat would put in to harbor (land in effect) if the forecast was for weather unsuitable for its wings. Of course multiple sets of wings appropriate for different weather situations can and are mounted on these vessels.

Soft wing sails can have multiple planes of fiber cloth (called skins) for the purpose of adjusting camber. On hard wings, multiple hinged vertical elements are used to adjust the shape. Most soft wing variants can also twist in the same manner as a conventional mainsail to account for the differing wind direction aloft. Traditional outhauls, halyards and Cunninghams can be used. Rotating the mast can induce camber in the sail, creating a highly cambered mast-sail section that generates high lift. The camber of the sail is often adjusted using hydraulic rams or other control systems. The design of the sail and the number of skins used can also affect the efficiency of the wing. Because of weight aloft, multiple skins makes necessary thin fabrics that often limit the vessel to normal wind conditions.

America’s Cup Sailors Encouraged to Learn Aviation

Today, an athlete who wishes to compete in sailing will be encouraged to get a student pilot’s license. It isn’t just strength and youthfulness that will make a desirable crew member on the AC and SailGP equipment. Aircraft know how also appears required on the equipment because – and this is especially true with foilers – the equipment is possibly more airplane like than sailboat like.

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