Flying Nikka – the future of sailing?, by Liesl King

Mark Mills is currently one of the most famous performance yacht designers in the world. Based in Ireland he is responsible for production designs such as the IC 37 for the NYYC, the Cape 31, double ORC World Champion Landmark 43, C&C30, King 40 and DK 46 as well as custom designs such as the 100′ wallycento Tango, the Maxi72 World Champion Alegre 3, multiple IRC Championship winners Mariners Cove and Tiamat, and the 69′ IMA Mini-Maxi Champion Alegre, to name but a few.

Mills grew up in San Francisco, right across the street from the St Francis Yacht Club. However, it would take a move to Ireland, aged 12, and a Teen Try Sailing Week at the Wicklow Sailing Club during the summer holidays, for him to become enthralled by sailing. Growing up he was fascinated by aeroplanes. When introduced to sailing though, he realised that planes and boats shared some of the same design characteristics, but boats were far more accessible.

“Back at boarding school, I would be drawing, sketching on any bit of paper and not getting much school work done.” Mills studied Yacht Design at the Southampton Institute, while racing with some of the best teams in the UK and launched his first design Aztec in Ireland in 1996. Numerous titles for his designs under IRC, ORC, and ORR, as well as Boat of the Year titles followed. As a designer Mills has been honoured with a Foiling Awards title in 2022, the MDO Monte Carlo Design Award in 2019, Seahorse Sailor of the Month in December 2014, the 2009 Irish Sailor of the Year award for “exceptional achievements”, and named the Asian Marine & Boating Best Designer of 2010 and 2015.

Here in Cape Town, Mills is best known for the iconic Cape 31. While the Cape 31 was designed specifically for our Cape waters, it’s popularity has taken off overseas, with growing fleets in the UK, Ireland and Australia. Yet it is his latest design, named Flying Nikka, that has been the most anticipated boat of the year.  A foiling 60ft Mini Maxi, designed for offshore racing, for owner Roberto Lacorte. Lacorte is the Vice-president of the International Maxi Association, the founder of the popular 151 Miglia race, and a hugely successful owner-driver with a string of high-profile victories to his name.

Lacorte wanted a boat that could compete in the Mediterranean coastal races as well as offshore races in Special Rules Category 3. He also wanted the boat to foil, taking on some of the technology from the radical AC75s.  A tall order for any designer, but Mills, who had already designed a Vismara V62, Mini Maxi, Super Nikka, for Lacorte, was willing to take on the challenge. He gathered a world-class team, including Spanish analytics experts KND and the engineering know-how of Giovanni Belgrano’s Pure Design and Engineering.

The challenges of the boat were numerous. The AC75s were designed for the America’s Cup, with huge budgets and professional teams. Flying Nikka needed to be able to be owner-driven, with a mix of amateur and professional sailors and on a budget that was a fraction of Cup team budgets. The boat also had to be able to compete in the light summer Mediterranean winds and needed a static stability that satisfied the Category 3 offshore race requirements. Hence Flying Nikka does not look like an America’s Cup boat. She has a keel and a bulb, and can sail in light air when both foils are out of the water. Mills explains that when the breeze builds, “you can start dipping the leeward foil into the water, to get some positive stability from that foil without having to immerse the entire foil.”

Flying Nikka’s foil arm cants through more than 90 degrees, and the wings at the base of each arm adjust the angle of attack to modulate lift. She also has a flight control system. Mills explains how it works.  “The arm cant adjustment is manual, while the flight control drives the wing angle and elevator angle (the horizontal foil at the base of the rudder). Basically the wing angle is adjusted to produce a stable ride height set by the crew, and similarly the elevator angle is adjusted to produce the desired trim.”

Flying Nikka was launched off Valencia on the 12th of May. The question everybody wanted answered, was how much wind would be required for Flying Nikka to foil. Mills explains that the launch was uneventful and everything went pretty much according to plan as they tested the various systems. “We were being so careful with the boat, we were not going to exceed 8 knots, then we decided not to exceed 10 knots. In the end the decision was made that the wind was too light to attempt foiling, so I headed back to shore. And I was in a taxi when I got a video of the boat foiling. I completely missed the moment.”

The boat has proved surprisingly easy to sail, says Mills. “I have been surprised by how user-friendly the boat has been so far, but we still need to do more trialling in bigger wind and waves, so that’s not my final word. She should be able to be sailed by a crew of three, but five to six crew made up of amateurs and professionals is probably going to be what is required. If we were discussing a conventional IRC Maxi72 you wouldn’t expect to crew it with all-amateur crew, these boats need dedicated investment for training and maintenance, before you ever get to go racing. Those sort of time demands aren’t easy to meet with an amateur crew. From the foiling point of view the Flying Nikka team raced 69F foiling dinghies for a year or two which provided them with a step up the curve. I think some experience of foiling, even in Moths, would be helpful!”

[Click her to see her first flight]

We have all seen the disastrous crash of Patriot, the USA Cup boat during the 2021 race. Is Flying Nikka likely to be risky to sail at speeds? “Anyone who has seen the Patriot video knows what a big foiler getting in trouble looks like”, says Mills.  “Flying Nikka with her keel fin is somewhat less aggressive, but anything capable of 40kn especially as you get away from the harbour presents an elevated risk. It’s just a matter of trying to foresee the risks, train for them, and use your judgement when sailing.”

Flying Nikka has been relocated from Valencia to Punta Ala, where the crew are having fun getting to know her better. The videos of Flying Nikka foiling have been spectacular. At around 10 knots true wind speed, she starts foiling with a boat speed of 16 knots. And a recent sail, where a foiling Flying Nikka reach a top speed of 34,7 knots, had everybody smiling from ear to ear. Mills however, is fairly confident that she is capable of reaching  speeds over 40 knots.

How to incorporate these boats in regattas with non-foiling boats, given the speed they can reach, will be an interesting issue for organisers. “That’s an open question at the moment as race organisers decide how to incorporate boats like this”, says Mills. “It may be that at least in the beginning they provide an exhibition class for the extreme performers which start first, a bit like the big Multihull start at the Fastnet. Let everyone see them start, and then they disappear.”

One thing is certain. Flying Nikka is revolutionary, unique, extraordinary and a lot of fun to sail. Mills seem to think that there could very well be a class of foiling offshore boats in the near future. “Well, given the foiling Cape 31 in Cape Town and Flying Nikka, clearly there are very experienced private owners eager to go foiling. I don’t think it will wipe out big boat racing as we know it, but there will be a segment of the market for extreme performance enthusiasts. I think it could be an owner in the Swan 50’s who really wants to step into something completely different, or a top end team looking for the ultimate challenge. If the client is drawn to ultimate technology this can be a compelling solution.”













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