Lighter Than Air

Meet the radical new 50-knot fuel cell chase boat for America’s Cup. Is this hydrogenated hydrofoil the shape of things to come?

Meet the radical new 50-knot fuel cell chase boat for America’s Cup. Is this hydrogenated hydrofoil the shape of things to come?

As a propulsion source for boating, hydrogen has a lot going for it. When coupled with a fuel cell, the lightest gas in existence provides a clean and high-efficiency means of electrically spinning a propeller. Over the last couple of years too, new technologies have emerged that allow hydrogen to be produced through electrolysis with seawater. One day soon, while out at sea with a solar array, you could literally end up refining your own endless source of fuel.

Battery technology has of course, been getting the lion’s share of attention over the last few years, but batteries are heavy and in high-drag boats, fairly range limited. To address that, Emirates Team New Zealand, the Defender of the 37th America’s Cup has been going all-in on hydrogen as a fuel for its chase boats. These boats must maintain 50-knot speeds just to keep up with the radical sailing foils of today. In the last year, Team Emirates has been sea trialing its Chase Zero -hydrofoiling catamaran. She’s arguably the most sophisticated, forward leaning vessel ever built: a 33-foot, six-passenger bullet that can hit 50 knots and cruise at 35 with a range of over 112 nautical miles. Below decks, four 73-gallon composite fuel tanks bear hydrogen compressed to 5100 pounds per square inch. Adapted from Toyota’s second-generation Mirai automobile, her high-reliability fuel cells drive two 400 volt electric motors that generate a total of nearly 600 hp.

Chase Zero has outperformed its expectations during challenging sea trials off the New Zealand coast. In the wake of a radical video showing the boat pushing the boundaries, we reached out to Emirates Team New Zealand’s communications guru Hamish Hooper. Not only did he give us an update on his team’s sea trials, but tipped us off to the fact that hydrogen chase boat technology will be a prerequisite for America’s Cup teams moving forward. As laid out in the America’s Cup Deed of Gift, the Defender of the Cup dictates the rules and regulations for the following competition. This gave Emirates Team New Zealand the power to mandate the development of hydrogen power across the chase boat fleet.

Acting on that directive, Sanlorenzo Yachts’ brand Bluegame has now signed on to build a pair of hydrogen-powered, hydrofoil chase boats for New York Yacht Club’s American Magic team. Their boats are expected to be operational for the 37th America’s Cup in Barcelona in 2024. Sanlorenzo also expects to launch a first-of-its kind 50-meter hydrogen-powered superyacht in 2024.

POWER & MOTORYACHT: Hi Hamish, we were highly impressed with the video you guys posted up showing Chase Zero traveling 150 nm on hydrogen tanks and electricity. What’s the latest on your sea trials?

Hamish Hooper: We have completed over 80 hours of run time, constantly pushing the conditions of operation and so far have been comfortable in all conditions, which has been in over 30 knots and 3 foot high waves. Top speed registered so far is 52.4 knots. Currently Chase Zero is undergoing its first inspection of the drive train and (foil) flap mechanisms, and both are showing little-to-no signs of wear. In terms of serviceability, within a four-hour period both the drive train and foil mechanism were pulled apart and inspected—which illustrates that maintenance is a time-efficient process and could be achieved overnight if needed. Autopilot development and the overall control of the boat has been great and that’s also been very helpful with the parallel development of the AC40 (Emirates Team New Zealand’s racing sailboat) autopilot.

PMY: Have there been any surprises or revelations—good or bad—since you guys started running Chase Zero and the Toyota hydrogen system hard?

HH: The reliability of the hydrogen powertrain has been fantastic. In the past when we have commissioned powertrains on sailing or powerboats, we generally experience small teething issues. The hydrogen powertrain on Chase Zero has been flawless from the beginning and gave us a huge amount of confidence in its ability.

PMY: I’m curious whether there’s been any further movement towards obtaining “green” hydrogen from solar or other renewable sources. That was fascinating—that you can actually generate hydrogen from renewable sources like the sun.

HH: Our hydrogen infrastructure partner is constantly looking at revolutionizing the way that they obtain hydrogen. Chase Zero is fueled only by green hydrogen.

PMY: An earlier article on hydrogen tech from Power & Motoryacht predicted that the Emirates chase boat could ultimately lead other teams—and perhaps the America’s Cup organization towards mandating renewable chase boats. Any new word on that front?

HH: Each team that has entered the Americas Cup are now obliged to operate a Hydrogen Support Vessel (HSV) and the event organization will operate a number of HSV’s on or around the racecourse during events.

(Editor’s note: Since this interview, it has been announced that each team will now be required to run two hydrogen-powered foiling chase boats a minimum of 10 meters in length, capable of a maximum speed of 50 knots and with a range of 156 nm.)

PMY: What’s been the reception of the public to Chase Zero?

HH: We have taken representatives from both the British team, INEOS Britannia, and Italian team, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, for a ride on Chase Zero and both were very impressed with the performance.

Whenever Chase Zero passes another boat, people stop, stare and generally take photos or videos. It looks unique when it is running on foils due to fact that it is so fast, quiet, and has very little wake. The boat has a fantastic outlook from the interior due to the large glass windows as well as the fact that you are foiling about a meter above the water. Whilst conducting banked turns, there are very little lateral G-forces compared with a conventional boat and combined with the boat flying above the majority of waves, the ride is just incredibly smooth—which surprises the majority of passengers. The general comment of people who have been for a run is “I want one!”

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This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.