Wingsail History

Wingsails Today

Like most visionary technologies, wingsails have struggled to gain acceptance despite their superior performance. But there are now a number of firms working with the technology.

Boatek of Felixstowe marketed a small wingsail boat for single-handed racing. The Cornish firm Ecocats Ltd build environmentally friendly catamarans, which can be fitted with wingsails. Wingsail Charters offer wingsail boats for hire in Portsmouth. Wingsails also offer advantages to disabled sailors.

Walker Wingsail

Walker Wingsail Systems plc built and sold an 8 tonne wingsail for use on MV Ashington in 1986. Collapse of world oil prices destroyed the economic case for use of wingsails in commercial shipping and the company turned to the luxury yacht markets and launched the trimaran design Blue Nova in 1990 and a smaller 43ft Zefyr trimaran design of which four were produced between 1997-2001.

These wingsail boats attracted attention wherever they were seen. Inventure was extensively modified to enable sailing by a paraplegic, with a heavily publicised story. The first three Zefyrs left the UK very soon after being sold. The fourth, Larinka, spent some time in a very prominent berth at Portsmouth (Gun Wharf Quays) where she was a real eye-catcher. Since 2007, Larinka has been rebuilt and many of her systems were modernised. In 2010, Larinka undertook a great voyage around the UK, stopping at the Isle of Mull in Scotland and arriving back at Dover in late July.

Both of the companies managed by the designer John Walker (Walker Wingsail Systems plc, 1982-98 and Wingtek plc, 1998-2000) failed. The current company, Wingsail plc., has three directors one of which is Anne Toms, an enthusiast for this technology and long-term supporter of all three companies.

Public and Commercial Reaction

During the 1980s and 90s, the UK media seemed hostile to wingsails, with an infamous libel case against the publication iYachting World-i. Venture capital funding appeared inaccessible and no UK boat-builders came in with Walker as partners. Investment was provided by 6,500 individual shareholders, with £12.5M invested before voluntary liquidation of WWS in 1998. One outside view was that the project needed £15-20M to succeed; another that the management and hull design were inappropriate.

Wingtek plc, the successor company to WWS plc, also tried to rely upon individual shareholders. It purchased from the liquidator of WWS the three partially built boats and moulds along with a licence for the IPR, but was compulsorily wound up (May-Nov 1999) to prevent publication of a prospectus for public subscription. Unusually, a Company Voluntary Arrangement was established (Spring 2000) to enable the company to trade its way back to solvency. This CVA relied upon an up-front loan from the customer for the next boat whose money failed to materialise.

No other customers were forthcoming, and so the CVA failed in August 2000, just as Zefyr_004 had been launched. This boat was purchased from the liquidator by James Wright and finished by Ian Page, to the best of his ability, but technical expertise was by then not available to him for some aspects of the software and control systems.

Why Wingsails Haven't Caught On So Far

No substantive technical criticisms of any sort are known of the wingsail designs. The reasons for failure include lack of firm customers, pursuit of the wrong market when oil prices and interest rates moved against wingsails, management mistakes, manufacturing processes being too long and forecasts being always far more optimistic than realities ever were.

The companies did not fail for lack of interest in the emerging technology, but for inability to bring it successfully to market.

Cooke Associates' Involvement

Our project aims to achieve the technical characterisation of the existing wingsail and to solve the technical challenges of fitting it to a catamaran hull with full integration, control and manufacturing feasibility.

In 2001 a preliminary review and further study of wingsails was commissioned by Anne Toms. This was conducted by Alison Cooke, who managed the staff resources, using ex-employees of Walker Wingsail Systems plc (wingsail designers), Boatek (small wingsail designer), Plymouth Composite Construction (boat-builders), Ecocats Ltd (boat-builders), The Patent Office, academics and students at Cambridge University Engineering Department, and consultants.