Meet the world’s first foiling Maxi, Flying Nikka. Designed for Mediterranean distance racing, this 60ft spaceship is going to shake up the big boat scene, writes Toby Hodges after an exclusive first sail
You might understandably mistake this futuristic craft for another America’s Cup foiler. Yet, although the aesthetics may look similar, Flying Nikka is a very different animal to the AC75s which ripped around Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf during the 2021 America’s Cup – and to anything we’ve seen before. This 60ft foiling weapon is designed to be owner-driven and compete in key maxi and long distance Mediterranean races.
Flying Nikka has a keel and inherent stability as it needs to compete in displacement mode too. It also has the potential to embarrass any competitors by lifting onto its carbon foils and taking off at two to three times the speed of most other monohulls in existence.
Flying Nikka is the most complex, innovative and exciting big yacht of the year – a pure speed machine, a technological and engineering goliath and a brave endeavour. It pushes the boundaries of where displacement sailing and foiling technology meet for offshore (albeit non-ocean) monohull racing.
It is the vision of Italian owner Roberto Lacorte, designed by Mark Mills and constructed at King Marine in Valencia. Not only was its development impressively rapid from concept to first foiling, but it was built to a repeatable budget, around 1/10th the cost of a Cup boat. As Mills emphasises: “The core of the project was for reliable, easy foiling.” It is sailed by Lacorte and his long-standing crew, rather than Cup all-stars.
And while I was admittedly sceptical about the overall purpose of Flying Nikka, I was privileged to be given an exclusive sail aboard during the team’s early trials from Punta Ala, Italy, in July.
Flying Nikka – a need for speed
Roberto Lacorte, an entrepreneur, accomplished racing driver and serial yacht owner, explained how Flying Nikka materialised. His previous yacht, the Mills/Vismara 62 racer-cruiser SuperNikka, has been highly successful on the Med circuit since her 2015 launch, and he asked Mark Mills to scale SuperNikka up to a 75-77ft pure IRC racer without compromise.
It was at this time that the AC75 Luna Rossa was starting to foil in trials. “If that is happening, then in the middle [between IMOCA and AC] exists everything – a boat that can give us a lot of fun, use the technology and use the performance of the future,” muses Lacorte.
Don’t expect Flying Nikka to be attempting a Fastnet Race or Transatlantic though, as it is designed for Med coastal races. “The dream is to win the Med mid-distance races, like the Giraglia, in real time. Then to have something to compare to a supermaxi like Comanche or Skorpios yet be faster and more fun,” Lacorte continues.
“Yesterday we went 22-25 knots upwind, and over 30 knots downwind, with sails trimmed like it was upwind!” he grins with wide eyed enthusiasm.
“The goal was also to have a lower budget than a Maxi 72 and we did that,” says Lacorte, who is convinced that this could make an attractive box rule class, for owner drivers wanting to ramp their excitement levels up.
The realisation that the 60-footer could foil in 9 knots breeze, confirming the design theory and potential of the boat, was clearly a massive moment for the team (documented in an hour long film about the making of Flying Nikka). “Flying first time was amazing, an emotion you cannot believe. But still nothing compares with what we discover day by day, hour after hour.”
Lacorte showed me to his futuristic-looking craft, leashed to the dock, its foils tucked below its body like a Transformers machine, waiting to unfold its arms and take flight. The forward sections have heavily chamfered topsides and a fine entry, then comes a concave foredeck, a sheer which rises significantly to the high midsection before tailing dramatically away like an AC75. Combine this peculiar shape with the severely raked, rotating mast, which seems comparatively short, and you start to realise how much revolves around aerodynamics and the need to minimise drag.
The all-carbon black hull and rig is grand prix cool too, adorned with red highlights, the Italian colours and Lacorte’s Cetilar Racing sponsorship. While Flying Nikka uses the canting foil arm technology of the Cup boats, where the windward arm lifts clear of the water to reduce drag, the key differences to an AC75 lie principally in the adjustable wingfoils and the ballasted bulbed keel, which ensures it can sail in displacement mode too.
I was invited to join what was only the crew’s third day in race training mode. Docking out made it clear that this is still very much a yacht, which manoeuvres under its own steam and on its own keel, but with a crew looking like a mix of racing drivers and Cup competitors in impact vests, helmets and goggles. This is not exactly normal windward leeward training, I thought, boarding the 40ft chase boat.
The lengthy process of refuelling the Nikka RIB further hinted that we were in for a different kind of day, as the pump display nudged €1,500 for 750lt. Aboard was Fabrizio Marabini from data logging specialists Faro, who works closely with hydraulics guru Cariboni and monitors speeds, performance, loads and megatronix. As boat captain Fabrizio Turini entered waypoints on the RIB’s B&G for the day’s course, the speed with which Nikka then did a horizon job on us was sensational.
Gone in 60 seconds
Within a minute of bearing away Flying Nikka was sailing at over 20 knots, which is a job to catch however many hundreds of horsepower your RIB has. Immediately noticeable was just how reactive she is to gusts. Flying Nikka rises spectacularly high, like a great breaching leviathan. Ride heights and angles are then constantly adjusted as the crew dial the beast down while apparent wind shoots forward.
My chance to board soon came when Nikka ‘landed’ for the crew to change headsails. I then spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying a white knuckle ride that could suit the most fearless of adrenaline junkies.
Sailing aboard Flying Nikka was an alien experience for a number of reasons, not least the inability to fully understand what was happening. Not only are the crew all Italian, but they speak into headsets in their helmets. Even had I been able to hear them over the apparent wind noise – which is always different degrees of a gale – I wouldn’t have been able to interpret anything above the unrelenting engine noise. Reverberating through the bare carbon hull, this runs almost constantly at high revs to fuel the power packs to cope with hydraulic demands.
Then there is the foreign motion. When foiling it’s largely level, so it’s the speed wobbles from side to side which are trickier to predict. Still, it was a truly gripping, brilliantly memorable experience.
I’d already witnessed how easily Flying Nikka takes flight. Yet even with the smaller J2 self-tacking headsail hoisted, as soon as there is over 9.5 knots true wind, it did what its name suggests and lifted up onto foils. Within seconds we were making 20 knots upwind in 11 knots at 20-25° to the apparent wind. And with it came some gratuitous acceleration.
Our simulated race involved a five mile leg to the windward mark. Great stretches of Elba island’s east coast became a distant blur as Flying Nikka maintained stable speeds in the low 20s and at one stage clocked 26 knots at 21° apparent in 14 knots!
Then came something I really wasn’t expecting: a tack. My surprise turned to panic as I gripped to hold on, then to amazement at the speed with which the boat turned, and finally to amusement at the G-forces I’d just experienced. I was prepared for them after that. Once I saw the jib trimmer switch places with the mainsail trimmer I knew what was coming. The engine noise ramps up another notch as max hydraulics engage to dump the new leeward arm in the water, raise the now windward foil, pull the mainsail back up the track and trim sails.
“The wing and [rudder] elevator are controlled by autopilot software, then we play manually with the cant,” Alessio Razeto explained (after sailing, obviously!). The North Sails Italy sales manager has been Lacorte’s main sailing representative since SuperNikka. He is also the relief helmsman and flight controller. “We can control everything manually, but have experienced that once the autopilot has learned from the human, it’s way better at flight and elevator control.”
It’s unusual to have the helmsman in front of the crew, but after two seasons struggling to see from the aft of the 69F, Lacorte and Razeto wanted a clear view from the wheel. It’s also prudent as the foil can create a real fire hose effect over the aft cockpit when at surface level.
The forward part of the cockpit is used by the helmsman on the wheel to windward, who becomes the flight controller on the leeward side. On the side deck to hand is a compact bank of switches to manually control height, pitch and trim plus a small wheel for elevation, while foot pedals allow the helmsman to drop or raise the arms to a predefined height.
It’s one thing completing a standard two to three hour race, but what about the longer mid-range races?
“Steering is not the hardest part, but doing flight control too on the other tack,” reckons Razeto – it’s a relentless demand for concentration. There’s also a lot of pressure on the single mainsail trimmer, however the six core crew train to be able to manage all roles.
“I’m an endurance driver and I know what it means to manage time,” considers Lacorte. “The auto control helps us a lot, allowing us to focus on steering rather than flying management.”
The mainsail or jib trimmer (depending on tack) takes the slot immediately behind the helmsman. Cunningham trim is particularly important because Flying Nikka uses Helix structural luff sails, with 80% load swallowed by the jib and just 20% on headstay, Razeto tells me. The 3Di Raw 140m2 main takes 7 tonnes of load. “You’re bending the [rotating] mast like runners would be while preventing everything going to the verticals.” With no backstays or heeling, the loads are extremely high, “so you are trimming more for load control than [sail] trim, staying inside the safety factors.”
Designed for easy flight
If I was expecting warp speeds on the off/downwind leg, it soon became apparent that Nikka lacked the extra grunt of a larger headsail in these fluky conditions. Yet even training with their smaller J2 we hit the high 20s – still at 25-30° apparent, but at 120° true as opposed to 50° true upwind – but there were many more landings and longer struggles to lift off again.
I began to see why Lacorte referred to protecting the lead in a race. If the wind drops below 9 knots Nikka could haemorrhage valuable miles and angles in displacement mode by sailing at reaching angles to try to get foiling again.
“It’s not true that it’s easy to win a race with a foiling boat, you have to be able to defend what you can do in a boat like this,” reasons Lacorte. “Sometimes we will be sailing in displacement mode and in that condition we have to protect what we do when flying.”
In reality, Flying Nikka will never be slow. Key to its design parameters, this is a super light build (only slightly more displacement than a TP52) so maintains slippery speeds even in displacement mode. After foiling though, it just feels comparatively like you’re parked.
Mills confirms that a non-foiling Nikka lies somewhere between a TP52 and a Maxi 72. The sail inventory currently includes a Code 0 and a reaching sail for displacement mode, set off a tack strop on the bow. The team is also considering a gennaker, but the jury is out on whether soft sails will ever be needed on this apparent wind machine. How to get rid of aero drag when foiling is the prime consideration.
“We thought 20 knots of wind would be scary, but we had two days trialling in 23 knots and it was easier,” reckons Razeto. “In more breeze it’s actually easier because you’re sailing with a flat main and small jib.”
Flying Nikka’s top speed to date is 37 knots, but that was before initial aeration issues in the wing arm junctions were sorted out. The team thinks over 40 knots is possible, but Mills cautions that soon after that figure they’ll then run into cavitation issues. Nikka has been designed with big wing surfaces for early take offs to suit light winds, but if the programme changes to record breaking, they could look at swapping to smaller foils.
The team’s first regatta was the Maxi Worlds in early September, where they were focussed primarily on safety and performance. Flying Nikka is more or less a 100-footer in terms of performance and handicap, says Razeto. “If we have our wind conditions we could easily beat a 100-footer like Comanche… the boat is designed to fly and break records in real time not to win on handicap.”
Inside the cave
It is strange not to have any visual connection between the cockpits, which are shut off from each other by a deck sweeper below the boom, however there is a tunnel between the two abaft the mast. The crew expects this will be used more as a dry place to rest from the noise and spray, rather than to cross cockpits.
Hatches give access to the interior, which is, as you would expect, predominantly black carbon fibre, in a mix of ring frames and stringers. On display are the massive titanium rams for the foil arms, while around the bulkheads a network of orange hydraulic hoses run off like veins to feed them with 500bar of oil pressure.
Project manager Micky Costa was confident there’d be no chance the crew would want to live below decks, so there are no pipe cots nor engine insulation. The heavily modified 110hp Yanmar block, selected for its high torque, sits exposed aft, and is designed to keep working at 90° heel. It has a PTO and separate power pump, while an accumulator keeps oil at a certain pressure – a demanding task when you consider the wings can move at four times per second.
An intriguing solution is the water cooling for the engine, which is extracted from the keel so it can keep working during flight. As is the 200lt crashproof fuel tank which uses foam inside to prevent fuel sloshing from one side to the other.
The right side of crazy
“What do you think? Are we crazy?” mainsail trimmer Enrico Zennaro asked when the sails were dropped and the helmets removed. I contemplated his question as we docked. Devoid of apparent wind the black boat was furnace-like in the late afternoon sun. And when the engine was finally turned off it felt like exiting a music concert, with just a dull ringing noise left in your head.
Having spent a fair amount of my spare time foiling recently, the most enjoyable aspect of it is that initial feeling of silent flight, when you rise above the surface and skim over it with no sound other than an occasional high speed whistle.
So for me, unless they spend a great deal of time and weight on insulation or an alternative power source, Flying Nikka will always have a fundamental downside in that regard: it is by far the loudest vessel I have ever sailed aboard.
To contemplate that discomfort and noise for hours, especially an overnight race, yes, I think you’d need to be a little crazy.
But then when has anyone had any fun or pushed the envelope by staying inside their comfort zone? Any racing driver wants to be faster than everyone else. Once you sample such speed and easy flight, there is simply no going back.
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