FEATURE | Fifty years of foiling

FEATURE | Fifty years of foiling

A hydrofoil ferry cruising along Lake Ladoga in Russia

The following is the keynote address delivered by Baird Maritime co-founder Dr Neil Baird at the fiftieth anniversary virtual symposium of the International Hydrofoil Society – of which he is a member – held last October 2020.


In 1963, when I was 16, my father and I built a six-metre by three-metre Attunga class plywood sailing catamaran. It was a beautiful boat and, for its time, very fast. Designed by Peter Hooks, an eccentric World War II fighter pilot who became a noted building architect, it incorporated several aero- and hydro-dynamic features inspired by Peter’s wartime Spitfire and Mustang adventures.

Peter was something of a kindred spirit and mentor who inspired me at that young age to follow the Amateur Yacht Research Society. I devoured its publications, always looking for ways to make my boat go faster. While hydrofoil craft had been around, at least since Alexander Graham Bell’s amazing contraption of the early 1900s, they were only starting to become commercialised and weaponised in the mid- to late fifties in Switzerland, Italy, Russia, the USA, and Canada.

The author’s Attunga-class catamaran, flying – but not foiling – in 1964

Reading about hydrofoil boats in AYRS journals and Popular Mechanics and the like, I became intrigued by the small but fast Swiss Supramar ferries, designed by Baron Hanns von Schertel, one of the founders of the International Hydrofoil Society (IHS). I felt that if I got the foil shapes and structures right, I would be able, in a good breeze and flat water, be able to make my Attunga catamaran fly.

Well, after numerous sheer snapped centreboards and rudders, we started to make them strong enough and it did. We began to be able to see daylight under the leeward hull while flying the windward one. While we only flew for a few hundred metres at a time and couldn’t change direction significantly, at least we were up there. How I wish we’d had access to modern FRP materials like carbon fibre then.

I sailed that boat with my brother in Melbourne, Hobart, and Sydney for several years, having a lot of fun and winning numerous races and regattas and often setting long-standing records. Once, coming in through Sydney Heads, the boat literally flew from one wave to another.

We then “grew up” and went ocean racing as crew for other, older, richer people in big yachts. Great fun and a great learning experience but not usually as exciting as faster, smaller sailing boats.

Meanwhile, I was, like many members of the IHS, no doubt, becoming interested, most particularly, in ferries, patrol and assault craft and yachts. I was especially interested in going faster at less cost, in greater comfort, with less wash and with much greater safety. All these factors pointed directly towards hydrofoils. I became fascinated with and an advocate for fast ferries. I was fortunate to be able to indulge my passion and experience almost all the commercial hydrofoils.

The “foiling ferries” to Manly

Having moved to Sydney in 1969, though, I began to experience and study the technical and other attributes of hydrofoil ferries. On prior visits, I had ridden on several including the original little Supramar-designed, Hitachi-built 19-metre, 75-seat Manly III in 1967. The fact that, with operating speeds of 34 knots, they halved the voyage times of the traditional Manly ferries was exciting.

I was then hooked on fast ferries and wanted to learn how they worked. I frequently rode on and became even more interested in the bigger Rodriquez PT 50, 140-seater boats that were introduced in 1966.

It was disappointing, even though I could understand why, that the hydrofoils began to be withdrawn from service from 1988. Unaffordable fuel costs were blamed. I was no longer living in Sydney then but visited frequently and maintained my interest in the hydrofoil ferries.

It was interesting to investigate why they were withdrawn and, mostly, scrapped after only just over 20 years. It seemed sad for aluminium craft to be so readily discarded. Fuel costs were a problem as were their berthing peculiarities and the vulnerability of their foils. I suspect, too, that their steel foils connected to riveted aluminium hulls may have suffered from corrosion problems. And, as so often happens around the Australian waterfront, there were union difficulties.

Curl Curl II, a hydrofoil ferry in operation in Sydney Harbour from 1973 to 1992 (Photo: City of Sydney Archives)

The Rodriquez boats were good to travel on. I experienced several of them in Sydney, the Solent and Italy. Smooth, fast enough for short distances and with comparatively low wash but noisy and smoky.

The slow death of the Rodriquez boats coinciding with the rise of the Boeing/Kawasaki Jetfoils

Rather putting the lie to the fuel cost excuse, it was interesting to see the almost simultaneous rise of the gas turbine-powered Jetfoil compared with the decline of the diesel Rodriquez boats. They overlapped from the mid-70s to the late 90s.

Few Rodriquez boats remain in service. However, they were out competed more by fast catamarans than by Jetfoils. The cats are easier to own. The Jetfoils, though, offered and still offer, a premium, “Concorde-like,” service. They are fast, smooth and expensive. They are fast and smooth, of course, unless they happen to hit a whale, wreck or container at speed. That has happened with fatal consequences.

I have travelled on numerous Jetfoils in the North Sea, Korea, Indonesia and, mostly, the Pearl River Delta in China. I have experienced some very rough conditions and incredible congestion, both of which were handled with aplomb. Needless to say, I always wore my seatbelt.

If you can afford them, Jetfoils are great to travel on.

The US Navy hydrofoil missile boat USS Pegasus in 1984 (Photo: US Navy/Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Jeff Hilton)

The Jetfoils arose from the development of the US Navy’s Pegasus-class, a 48-knot foiling missile boat of which six were built. Interestingly and importantly, the Pegasus-class was pushed and strongly promoted by my illustrious predecessor in the role of Keynote Speaker to the 25th Anniversary IHS Conference, the remarkably forward thinking Admiral Elmo Zumwalt USN.

However, like most navies, the US Navy has never been keen on small vessels so the 41-metre Pegasus-class was quickly doomed despite Admiral Zumwalt’s status as Chief of Naval Operations. A pity that naval prejudice prevailed as they were very promising boats. Indeed, the fast missile boat concept has been picked up and developed by China’s PLA Navy with their, ironically, as things have turned out, Australian-designed Houbei catamaran FAC.

The hydrofoil ferry Cacilhas in Hong Kong Harbour (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Case)

Boeing, however, spread its significant development costs over the civilian version, the 43-knot Jetfoil, of which they built 28. Fifteen were subsequently built under licence by Kawasaki in Japan and two built in China but styled slightly differently. Interestingly, after a hiatus of 25 years, Kawasaki launched another example earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Rodriquez, after building some 250 plus mostly commercial hydrofoils, experimented with some large, steel-hulled Ro-Pax vessels that were unsuccessful. That adventure seems to have destroyed the company, which is now a division of the yacht building group Intermarine. Anyway, Rodriquez faded from the scene after 1999 as the catamarans were faster, cheaper to build, buy and run and, importantly, safer.

In the late nineties I had a delightful dinner in London with three of the Rodriquez family. I was most impressed with their concepts and philosophies but felt they were struggling somewhat with the rapid advance of catamarans. As they were the real pioneers of commercial hydrofoils, indeed of fast ferries, I felt rather sorry for them. I liked their boats.

The Russians were coming

Simultaneously with the Rodriquez and Boeing developments, the Soviets, naturally, had to enter the market. As always, their vessels commenced as military craft. Designed and built by several design “bureaux” and naval shipyards, hundreds of their Raketa, Meteora and Kometa hydrofoil ferries were built. Many were exported. They commenced delivering 33-knot commercial ferries in 1957 and Kometas are still being built today. Not a bad production run.

They were generally sold at uneconomic prices, That is, “dumped”. The Soviets did not have a commercial clue. The boats were also heavy fuel consumers and maintenance was very expensive due to poor quality Soviet engines and largely riveted construction from often dodgy materials.

A Russian-built Meteora hydrofoil ferry (left) in Saint Petersburg

I have ridden on many Meteoras and Kometas in Russia, Greece, China and Vietnam. Except for those in Greece, most of these craft were roughly finished, poorly maintained, smoky “tail draggers”. One in particular, on the Mekong River in Vietnam, was disintegrating with the aluminium structure, believe it or not, reinforced with galvanized steel!

My most recent trip on a Kometa was almost exactly a year ago, from Thassos to the mainland in Greece. The boat was in better condition than its Vietnamese cousin but it still poured out massive amounts of exhaust smoke, was very noisy, and barely got up on its foils. It travelled at about 20 knots, leaving a substantial wave wake.

Soon after Glasnost, in the early nineties, I managed to be taken on an illegal tour of the Almaz Shipyard on the Neva River in St Petersburg. It was then still very much a Soviet-style defence shipbuilder but, in addition to the huge military hovercraft being constructed there, they were still turning out Kometas and other commercial and military hydrofoils – very inefficiently, I should add.

The wider market

Other hydrofoils, I know, came and went but mostly “went” without a trace. The Russians tried numerous naval versions but they seemed to come to nothing – they probably spent too much on WIG craft! Another way of flying over the water.

So, my commercial interest remained mostly focused on the Rodriquez, Boeing/Kawasaki and Russian boats. They were the only ones I rode on personally. However, I did read about examples such as the Fijian-built Drodrolagi, launched in 1995 and capable of carrying 60 passengers at 37 knots. I’ve not heard of it since.

The latter was more of a “foil assisted” boat, like the excellent HYSUCATs from South Africa’s renowned Professor Karl-Gunter Hoppe and the Monostab ferries that Rodriquez unsuccessfully experimented with twenty or so years ago. New Zealand naval architecture firm Teknicraft Design has made a specialty of the HYSUCAT concept with, effectively, a hydrofoil “wing” connecting the keels of the two hulls of a catamaran. Numerous patrol, yacht, passenger and research vessels have been built incorporating that hydrofoil concept. They are highly regarded but I have never experienced one. They do much of what I hoped hydrofoils would do when I first thought about them.

Australia’s One2Three Naval Architects designed an interesting and successful trimaran motor yacht utilising the system in 2009. I understand the concept has been taken still further using the trimaran configuration of Frank Kowalski’s magnificent Thunder Child II built by his Safehaven Marine.

Reliance, a Teknicraft-designed hydrofoil ferry operated by Seattle’s Kitsap Transit

In the mid-nineties we published two editions of The World Fast Ferry Market, a survey that turned out to be amazingly prescient. It is now really even more interesting to read than when it was first published in 1997. We were twenty years ahead of our time and I suspect that is a trait we share with many hydrofoil developers.

Even then, though, among the 44 fast ferry types currently in production, there were only Rodriquez, Kawasaki and Kometas listed as building hydrofoils. Importantly, though, we highlighted the growing desire for ferries having lower resistance, wash, emissions and fuel costs combined with greater safety, comfort and speed. The catamaran ferries were achieving most of those objectives then but the addition of hydrofoil technology has “supercharged” them.

The demonstrator craft Thunder Child II. Frank Kowalski’s creation is available in patrol, rescue and yacht versions.

Foiling leisure boats

While foiling commercial and naval vessels have developed slowly, except, perhaps for the Teknicraft boats, in the 25 years since Admiral Zumwalt stood here before you, leisure applications of hydrofoils have exploded. Hopefully, some of that explosive force will be directed towards commercial and naval activities. There is no doubt that many of the leisure developments have great potential in those other, more real, worlds.

As an avid reader of Yachting World and a constant observer of the sailing activity on Pittwater, outside my window, I have, frankly, been amazed and delighted by the advances I have seen over the past twenty years or so. From the first flimsy foiling Moths to the America’s Cup catamarans and, now, large foiling monohulls, the change has been phenomenal.

Hydrofoils have more than super-charged sailing boats. The speed increases achieved have broken the sailing “sound barrier.” In twenty years, speeds of sailing craft have more than doubled.

The foiling catamarans competing in the last couple of Americas Cups were routinely flying around the course at 40+ knots. (Photo: Sarum Hydraulics)

Of course, these developments apply almost solely to racing boats but, as with Formula One racing cars, plenty of them eventually transfer to normal road cars. I suspect this will happen, also, with boats. Indeed, I expect that ultimately much of what is happening in top level yacht racing will eventually trickle through to engine-powered commercial and military vessels.

These hydrofoil sailing boats are doing everything we want in ferries, patrol and other commercial and military vessels. Strong, lightweight, low-resistance boats require less power and less fuel while giving a smoother ride and making less wash. Jetfoils, for example, offer a wonderful ride and high speed but wouldn’t it be great if you could achieve that with significantly less power? I’m sure it will happen before long.

How long before this electric hydrofoil technology will be transferred to the commercial world?

Apart from the very highly developed foil shapes, it is obvious, even to a non-naval architect, that much of the advance is due to the use of modern FRP-based materials. Basically, they are incredibly light and strong and, so, encourage hydrofoil development. How I wish I had them back in the mid sixties!

The electric hydrofoil Sea Bubbles water taxi service was launched recently in Switzerland, the home of commercial hydrofoils.

I confidently expect such a transfer of hydrofoil technology from the leisure to the commercial and military sectors. There will, I am sure, be many more foiling ferries, water taxis, patrol, assault, pilot and other craft over the next few years. They will undoubtedly incorporate those light strong foils. I expect to see and experience many of them and look forward to that. However, the keynote address at your 75th IHS Symposium will be really fascinating. I’m sorry I’m unlikely to be here long enough to participate.

Meanwhile, I wish the IHS well with this, its fiftieth anniversary symposium. I look forward to following your deliberations and learning of many further advances in foiling.

More great content as part of this month’s Hydrofoil Week right here.

Neil Baird

Co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Baird Maritime and Work Boat World magazine, Neil has travelled the length and breadth of this planet in over 40 years in the business. He knows the global work boat industry better than anyone.