Hydrofoils for Sailboats

Could the hydrofoil technology that has race boats gliding above the waves be adapted for cruising boats?
foils and cruisers
Concept artist David Levy offers a view of what the future might look like as sailboats sprout foils and cruisers fly across the waves David Levy

Hydrofoils have been providing dynamic lift since fish sprouted fins. And people have been employing foils ever since they first put paddle to water, and certainly since adding keels and rudders to boats. But the modern, flying America’s Cup boats, kiteboards, Moth dinghies, shorthanded offshore thoroughbreds—these are all ­playing in a new world in which the terms “hydrofoils” or “lifting foils” describe those oriented to raise a hull or hulls from the water. In these racing realms, if you ain’t got foils, you ain’t got nothin’.

Lifting foils that allow these boats to sometimes home in on three times the wind speed might appear to be of little interest to cruising sailors, but with such common cruising features as self-steering and autopilots, self-tailing winches, rope clutches, fin keels and faster hull shapes all having been passed down from the racing scene, one must ask, “What promise, if any, do hydrofoils hold?”

Read on.


Lifted or partially lifted boat patents extend back to 1869, but workable watercraft took roots along with early flight. Italian Enrico Forlanini began experimenting with foils in 1898. In 1906, his 1-ton 60 hp foiler reached 42.5 mph. Alexander Graham Bell’s HD-4 Hydrodrome flew on Bras d’ Or Lake at 70 mph in 1919. And several sailing foiler patents began appearing in the 1950s. Notably, JG Baker’s 26-foot monohull, Monitor, flew at 30-plus mph in 1955. Baker experimented with a number of foil configurations, and at least built, if not used, the first wing mast. The first offshore foiler was likely David Keiper’s flying trimaran, Williwaw, in which he crisscrossed the Pacific in the 1960s.

IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss
The future is now for Alex Thomson aboard the soaring IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss. Courtesy Alex Thomson Racing

By the 1980s, numerous speed-trial and foil-enhanced offshore-racing multihulls showed huge promise, and have since evolved into behemoth trimarans clocking 30 to 40 knots continuously for long periods, not to mention the monohulls in the Vendée Globe (and soon the Ocean Race) that are capable of speeds exceeding 30 knots. But as boat designer Rodger Martin once reminded me, “If you want a new idea, look in an old book.” He was right. The fully foiling monohulls that will compete in the 2021 America’s Cup will bring things back full circle to the foiling monohull Monitor.

Fluid Dynamics Primer

Any foil—a wing, sail, keel, rudder or lifting foil—redirects the flow of fluid (air included), creating high- and low-pressure areas on opposite sides of the appendage, while developing lift perpendicular to the foil’s surface.


Advancements in foiling science is due in part to the hundreds of foil shapes that were tested, with tabulated results, by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. For the better part of a century now, aircraft and boat designers have been able to choose from a spectrum of refined foil sections that produce predictable amounts of lift and drag for known speeds of fluid and angles of attack, or the angle at which the foil passes through the fluid. Sections of efficient faster foils, as seen on jets or as we flatten our sails to go upwind or reach high speeds, have smaller nose radii and are thinner, with the thickest section of the foils farther aft, up to nearly halfway toward the trailing edge.

Figaro 3
Foils on the Beneteau Figaro 3 provide lift to lessen the boat’s displacement. Courtesy Beneteau/Billy Black

The most efficient foil sections at slow speeds are fatter, with the maximum thickness farther forward, and with larger nose radii, than faster foils. The angle to fluid flow or angle of attack also is greater. We see these slower foils on wings of prop planes and sails when off the wind or in light conditions.

Most sailors are familiar with traditional foils on boats, the teardrop sections of keels that produce lift to weather, reducing leeway, and of rudders, allowing them to steer. Even a flat plate can be a foil, but these tend to be inefficient. Such a shape is prone to fluid separation from the surface, meaning they stall easily, and they maintain poor lift-to-drag ratios. Even keels and rudders are somewhat lift-­compromised because they are ­symmetrical and have to work with fluid coming from either side, whereas lifting foils are more like aircraft wings or propellers, with asymmetrical sections honed for performance in a more stable, fluid flow.


The point is, any foil can be employed at various angles to the surface to prevent leeway, produce increased stability, or help lift the boat out of the water. But those not required to work with fluid flowing from opposite sides can then be honed to maximize lift and minimize drag. Asymmetrical foils were used on boats like Bruce King’s bilgeboarders, including Hawkeye, back in the 1970s. And, designers, including Olin Stephens, had previously employed trim tabs behind keels to improve keel performance.

Sails, which are heeled airfoils, not only drive the boat forward, but they also produce downforce, actually increasing the dynamic displacement of the boat. To counter this and keep the boat sailing more upright, multihull designer Dick Newick first employed slanted asymmetrical hydrofoils in the outer hulls of his small charter trimaran, Lark, in 1962. A portion of the lift developed by the hydrofoil resisted leeway, while a portion worked to actually lift the leeward hull, keeping the boat more upright and reducing dynamic displacement and drag.

Anyone who has ridden on even a foil-stabilized boat will know how riding at least lightly on the waves, and especially above them, beats smashing through them. When boats lift off, everything gets a lot smoother, drag falls away, and the boat accelerates.


Cruising on Foils

But why would a cruiser want to whip over the sea? Wouldn’t this demand an inordinate amount of attention by the crew? Would lifting foils even be applicable to a boat that must have substantial displacement to carry crew and stores? Aren’t cruising-boat hydrofoils an oxymoron?

Maybe, but I believe our boats’ hulls are likely to sprout fins much as fish have as we orient foils to more efficiently resist leeway, add stability, aid steering, reduce drag, increase comfort, allow for shallower draft, and enhance wider ­variations in hull shapes.

Boats have gotten increasingly wide through the years to advance form stability, improve performance (primarily off the wind), and boost interior volume. But the downside is that fat boats tend to slam more upwind. What if you could reduce dynamic displacement of the boat and lift that hull even partially from the water? The result would be less slamming, especially upwind.

At the same time, what about narrower boats that are known for being more seakindly, especially when closehauled, but lack form stability to carry adequate sail area for powering upwind, and tend to roll badly downwind? Or shallow-draft vessels that are lovely for cruising, but again, tend to suffer from reduced stability? Foils can give that stability back.

deck-mounted, ram-controlled foils
The author sketched out a cruiser with port and starboard swinging foils that will retract nearly fully into the side of the hull, filling the slot behind it to match the hull curvature, and leaving the foil’s leading edge external to the hull, similar to a strake. This would eliminate any major damage should the foils hit an unidentified floating object. Courtesy Steven Callahan

Looking ahead, boat ­designers might choose to reduce ballast, making up for it with a foil. In short, lifting foils can reduce boat drag and motion while increasing power and performance.

Pitching also does no favors for speed or crew comfort. Foils can come into play here as well. Foils parallel to the sea’s surface resist motion up and down, and a lifted boat skating above chop also is less prone to hobby-horsing through waves. Multihulls have always been particularly susceptible to pitching for a number of reasons, but watching videos of multihulls sailing to weather show an obvious huge advantage that foilers have compared with nonfoilers. Offshore multihulls now routinely employ T-foils on the rudders to control the fore and aft angles of the boat (attitude), a feature easily adaptable to any vessel.

OK, so what’s the cost? Obviously, the more things sticking through the hull, ­especially if they are retractable, the more it’s going to impact the interior. There would be added weight, complexity and cost. Foils also create noise, and there’s susceptibility to damage from hitting stuff. And let’s not forget compromises with shapes, purposes and things not yet imagined.

As for damage, it’s possible to fold the foils back into the hull. Think swinging center- boards or actual fish fins. Daggerboardlike foils can at least employ shock-absorbing systems similar to the daggerboard arrangements found in many multihulls. This includes weak links that are outside the hull, so if a foil is struck, it frees the foil to fold back or to come off before being destroyed or damaging the hull. Or, foils might hang from the deck rather than penetrating the hull, allowing them to kick up (and to be retrofitted to existing boats). These configurations also relieve the interior of intrusions, and keep the noise more removed from it. I have no doubt that numerous talented designers will be exploring all kinds of options and compromises in coming years, finding ways to make foils both practical and more than worth the compromises.

Sailing more upright, ­shallower draft, speed, ­comfort—what’s not to like? Just what is possible? I have a feeling the cruising community is about to find out.

Steven Callahan is a multihull aficionado, boat designer and the author of Adrift, an account of his 76 days spent in a life raft across the Atlantic.