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Aussies go for speed record

Macquarie Innovation:
Macquarie Innovation: "Risk of a crash every time"

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SANDY POINT, Australia (CNN) -- Three Australian sailors are attempting to reach the holy grail of speed sailing -- the 50-knot barrier.

Designer Lindsay Cunningham, helmsman Simon McKeon and sail trimmer Tim Daddo are sailing the purpose-built craft Macquarie Innovation at Sandy Point, near Melbourne.

They hope to break their own record of 46.52 knots over the standard 500-metre course, set in 1993 on the Cunningham-designed Yellow Pages Endeavour.

The first sailors over 40 knots were French surfboarders. But Cunningham saw they had limited control and drag problems. He wanted a more sophisticated approach with a low drag craft.

Building on his experience with C-class catamarans, Cunningham developed a series of foil-borne tripods starting with Yellow Pages Endeavour in 1992.

Macquarie Innovation is the culmination of six speed sailing campaigns. Shaped like a spider, it has a low aspect aerofoil wing sail set on a tripod 13 metres by 13 metres (40 feet x 40 feet). It weighs just over 220 kilogrammes (440 pounds).

The wing sail, 7.5m high and 3.4m wide (24ftx11ft) is made out of heat-shrink material and laid over carbon fibre frames.

The two-man crew pod on the starboard arm is built from lightweight marine plywood and covered in plexiglass. In an accident, the capsule is designed to be thrown clear of the wreckage.

A motorcycle helmet is standard sailing gear for McKeon. "There's a risk every time we take the boat out that it's going to crash," he says.

"The only real issue is whether it's going to be a big one or a little one. But we're used to that."

One of the sensations few sailors ever experience is acceleration. McKeon adds: "We used to have a little instrument telling us what the G-forces were.

"Doing a 35 to 38-knot run is actually quite pleasant. At those speeds it's not that hard to sail. Once we're up into the 40s, though, it's a different kettle of fish.

"I've never concentrated as hard in my life as I have for those 20 intense seconds when you're thundering down the course at really high speed."

The course at Sandy Point -- a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a relatively long, thin, sandy spit -- is ideal for high-speed sailing. The wind from Bass Strait is reasonably undisturbed and the water is relatively flat.

Yellow Pages Endeavour set the 1993 record in just 19 to 20 knots of wind. Macquarie Innovation is more efficient and does not need as much wind to hit top speed. McKeon says it needs 18 or 19 knots to gain momentum, then can sail at three times the wind speed.

In three weeks of training the team has reached a maximum speed of 40 knots in 15 knots of wind.

"We can actually do 55 knots, if not more," says McKeon. "The question is whether it'll be practical in the circumstances. There're always a million things that can go wrong."

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