Rigged out for a record

Three-hulled Slingshot will be shooting for the world speed mark this autumn
June 04, 1978

Every fall a curious assortment of adventurers turns up at Weymouth, England, all bent on setting a world speed record for sailboats over a 500-meter course. Last year one light-hearted fellow entered an inflatable catamaran filled with helium; his craft's weight was but 26 pounds. Another entrant was a boat whose "sails" consisted of a spread of six kites that dragged the craft along at a speed of around six knots. Other skippers took a different, er, tack, some trying segmented sails that made the vessels resemble portable bleachers. Far surpassing all the entries, however, was the Goliath of speed sailing, Crossbow II, a British twin-hulled proa that broke her own world record of 31.8 knots by sailing at 33.8. That translates to 39 mph and means that Crossbow II dominates her open class.

Enter David. Launched this month at Bay City, Mich., the appropriately named Slingshot—brainstorm, toy and latest enterprise of adventurer Karl Thomas and his brother George—will become the first American entry in the speed trials, lending the event a degree of excitement heretofore absent in its seven-year history. With Karl Thomas, a 29-year-old German-born pepper pot, around, it could hardly be otherwise.

Thomas calls Slingshot a cross between an iceboat and an outrigger canoe. That's not terribly revealing; it's sort of like saying that the B-1 bomber is a cross between a Sputnik and a Titan missile. For the technically oriented, Slingshot is a proa, a multi-hulled craft of Polynesian origin that sails primarily on one hull, using the two outriggers for balance. The center hull, made of cedar, is 60 feet long and six feet wide and a harrowing [5/16]ths of an inch thick. The two outrigger hulls, also of cedar, are 15 feet long and—Slingshot's most unusual feature—are attached to either end of a 44-foot aluminum rack that slides horizontally across the main hull. When Slingshot is racing, the windward outrigger (the outriggers are called control pods because the boat can be steered from either one) is suspended the full 44 feet out, while the leeward outrigger slides in against the main hull. The unique sliding rack enables Slingshot to make speed assaults on both port and starboard tacks, a trait Crossbow II does not share; when she goes for a record, it is on starboard tack only. This failing leads Thomas to refer to the world champion disdainfully as "a freak that can't return to her own harbor without a tow."

Predictably, Slingshot's reversible control pods also lead to complications. As the wind heels the boat's 43-foot mast toward the water, the windward pod lifts into the air. To counteract this force, one by one the four-man crew tightropes out onto the pod, balancing on nine inches of aluminum with nothing to cling to but a guide wire. If the wind surpasses 25 mph, as it did last year when Crossbow II set the record, Thomas is convinced his Slingshot will be sailing along at 40 mph or better. In such conditions, all four crew members would have to be teetering out on the control pod to keep Slingshot from tipping over. If one of them were to fall off, an easily conceivable circumstance, the loss of weight could very well slingshot the rest of the crew up over the capsizing boat. Hence the vessel's name.

"It would be like a child jumping off a teeter-totter," says Thomas. "Everyone out on the outrigger would go flying from a height of about 40 feet. At that speed, a human body would skip like a stone—if it didn't get hung up in the lines first. It's really the only kind of sailing where a guy could actually get killed."

Nothing new there. Karl Thomas has been flirting with disaster for years. His earliest trauma was being kicked by a camel. After that, his parents, who traveled around Europe with a small German circus, had to keep baby Karl tied in the yard with a clothesline and dog harness to keep him from toddling into the menagerie. The family moved to the U.S., and by the time Thomas was 14 he had gotten a heavy dose of the sea by living aboard a boat in Miami and catching sharks for a local aquarium. At 17, convinced that his father was "bound and determined not to leave my brother and me an estate," Karl took off on his own. He got a pilot's license and wound up in Alaska flying the bush. In 1971 he moved to his present home in Troy, Mich. and started his own flying service. When he sold out four years later, it had blossomed into a million-dollar company.

It was in 1972 that Thomas and some friends made a pact to have a yearly adventure. Hopping about in his planes—"You can get into more mischief with an airplane than anything I know Of"—in the next few years he explored Baja California, rafted down the Colorado and took a 13-country tour of the Americas in 15 days, during which he performed as a matador in a Guatemala bullfight armed only with a se‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±orita's scarf. "I was told that if you did well, you got to keep the se‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±orita—which you did. But first, you had to apprentice six months to her father."

In June of 1976, two months after getting married—not to the owner of the scarf—Thomas went into adventuring in a big way. He tried to cross the Atlantic in a helium-filled balloon.

The origins of Slingshot were seeded on a five-foot rubber life raft in the middle of the Atlantic. Thomas' balloon crossing ended after 34 hours when a thunderstorm dumped him 220 feet down into the ocean, 400 miles south of Newfoundland. Thomas' was the 13th attempt to cross the Atlantic by balloon, and five balloonists before him had died. Of those who hadn't, most had never made it out of sight of land. In fact, the flight immediately preceding Thomas', made from California by Publisher Malcolm Forbes, aborted immediately. So, 1,000 miles out to sea, Karl Thomas had nothing to be ashamed of.

Once in his raft, he rigged a sail out of a blanket and set off for Newfoundland. En route he decided he might as well break the record for survival in a life raft, which he hazily remembered as 39 days (the record is actually 133 days). In any case, his speed toward Newfoundland, as figured by his 26-year-old brother George, a naval architect who designs nuclear submarines, was around one knot per hour.

After four days in the raft, Karl was picked up by a Russian trawler and deposited in Rotterdam. But that short voyage in the life raft and subsequent discussions with brother George left Karl Thomas determined to skipper a sailboat to the world speed record. George, an avid SORC sailor familiar with the exploits of Crossbow II, set about designing Slingshot.

When Karl Thomas first approached Gougeon Brothers, boatbuilders of Bay City, Mich., with the Slingshot design, Jan Gougeon, whose wooden-hulled racers have taken a Canada's Cup and Little America's Cup in the past few years, dismissed him as a deluded balloonist who had spent too many hours out in a life raft. One talk with George convinced him otherwise. "Karl is like a little kid with his enthusiasm and his adventures," says Gougeon. "He gets carried away just thinking about racing a boat. But George is a sharp guy. He's taken a new approach to speed sailing. Instead of increasing speed by adding great gobs of sail, like Crossbow II, he's doing it by cutting down drag."

Slingshot is an amazingly light 1,850 pounds—a traditional 60-foot sailboat might weigh 40,000—and can plane like a powerboat. The ultra-narrow Crossbow II (each hull is two feet across) slices through the water like a scull. "In effect, they're trying to drive a pencil through a snowbank faster than we can slide a ruler over it," George says. The difference in resistance is such that Crossbow II carries 1,400 square feet of sail, while Slingshot's total sail area is 630 square feet.

Early testings in May had everyone connected with Slingshot excited. The boat has already sailed more than 20 knots in winds of 10 knots, which is unheard of around Saginaw Bay. "She's one fast s.o.b., I'll tell you that," Jan Gougeon says. "When she starts planing at about 18 knots, people are going to start falling out of their chairs to see it. The design works. If they can sail her, she'll do 40 easy."

And if she does, what's in it for the Thomas brothers, who have sunk about $100,000 into Slingshot? "If you mean money, nothing," says Karl. "Some people see psychiatrists; others pray; I have adventures. It's a way to separate one year from the next.

"The thing I love about adventures is using your wits to win out over the unforeseen. When I was in that balloon, there must have been 20 things go wrong that I took care of. I deserved to cross the Atlantic. And even when I was in the raft and thought I was done for, I wanted to tell my friends not to feel bad, because I was there of my own volition, and that's more than most people can dictate to death."

And next year's adventure? "I won't think about it until this is over," says Karl, but there is a glint in his eye. "Of course, the record for sailing across the Atlantic hasn't been broken since 1905."

George casts a glance at his brother. "She's not built for stress," he says.

"Of course she's not. But she could be modified," Karl says.

George has the look of a patient father. "No, she couldn't."

"She might. George always shudders when I mention that," he says as his brother shudders. "We'll think of something, though. Take up a new field, I guess. That's the only way you learn."

How else will he know it's 1979?

PHOTOTo keep the boat upright in a breeze, Slingshot's outrigger device can be extended in either direction.