The swiss nationals shaping the future of sailing

From 1976 to 1994 following in the wake of the racing sailor from Morges, Pierre Fehlmann, a generation of sailors from Lake Geneva earned their spurs around the world on the maxi catamarans Disque d’or, UBS Switzerland and Merit.

Back on dry land, these men – subsequently joined by others – have never ceased improving and inventing boats of every size. The roll call includes Bertrand Cardis, Gérard Gautier, Luc Dubois, Sebastian Schmidt and Pascal Vuilliomenet. Architects, engineers or master sailmakers, they are all sailors dedicated to shaping the future of sailing. Among other achievements, they have contributed to the performances of the Alinghi team and the D35 boats. But what is behind this proli-feration of skills around Lake Geneva in a country better known for its ski runs and lakes? “It is an amazing playground and a life-sized laboratory!” answer those concerned to a man.

Moreover, as the naval architect Sebastian Schmidt reminds us “on a closed body of water, you can take far more risks in terms of trial runs and other tests than on the open sea.”

Success drives technology forwards

However, one of the key factors is the presence of numerous industrialists and wealthy families who have been keen enthusiasts of this sport for several generations and who have been more than willing to invest with a view to ensuring progress. Experienced sailors, innovative companies, state of-the-art research, financial resources and a competitive spirit would therefore seem to be the ingredients of this success focussing on Lake Geneva.

The names of Firmenich, Rothschild, Bertarelli, Stern and Lombard immediately spring to mind – men whose boats were at the forefront of great races and who never hesitated to put their hands in their pockets to ensure the success they achieved, and in doing so to develop new technologies in a sport demanding cutting-edge engineering.

Sebastian Schmidt also notes a “truly enterprising spirit with regard to boats,” which can be seen nowhere else in Switzerland. “The German Swiss are much more reluctant to innovate in terms of materials,” explains the architect. This boldness of the French-speaking Swiss makes all manner of undertakings possible.

Pascal Vuilliomenet, a research associate in the Vice Presidency for Innovation and Technology Transfer at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the laboratories of which succeeded, among other things, in incorporating fibre optics in the materials in order to analyse efforts in real conditions, applauds this work: “Developing systems to measure the deformation of structures in situ makes it possible to optimise simulations and thus to close the loop,” notes the former sailor.


The days when the Oiseau-Roc, one of the first multihulls developed on Lake Geneva, was unable to rival the Toucans seem such a long time ago! Under the impetus of a number of passionate owners and sailors, the hulls were given a facelift. Some of those concerned, such as Richard Milliquet who designed the Poopy Express when he was a student at the EPFL, were already putting the finishing touches to their hulls in the testing basin of the hydraulic machines laboratory. This was also the case of the architect Grobéty who was behind the Amethysts, including the famous Zoé. From the 1980s, Bertrand Cardis – another engineer from the EPFL and Director of the Décision SA boatyard – has occasionally worked with the school, explaining “I maintained good relations and enjoyed offering students the chance to work on a tangible project.” The boatyard and the leading university endeavoured to understand the interfaces between the different materials and to optimise the procedures by improving the understanding of these mechanisms. Bonding, for example, was a key focus at the time.

A sandwich hull

The subsequent arrival of new materials gave rise to a veritable technological leap forwards. Composites made hulls lighter without compromising their rigidity or their performance. “This is clear to see if we compare the F40 catamaran Le Matin, built using PVC foam and Kevlar fabric and which was in service until 2000, and the first D35 built in 2004. The latter, made from a carbon fibre honeycomb sandwich, is much lighter and more competitive,” explains Bertrand Cardis.

More recently, the latest gen-eration of boats produced by the Décision SA boatyard – two Hydros Class C catamarans built to compete in the Little Americas Cup in Falmouth – are the first in history to be built using TPT (thin ply technology). This innovative procedure, developed in Switzerland by the master sailmaker Gérard Gautier, combines solidity, rigidity and lightness. For the moment, however, it is used exclusively for state-of-the-art boats. Nevertheless, Bertrand Cardis has great expectations for it in the aviation industry (read interview).

Professionals on the water

On the lake, the impacts of this progress are undeniable, and while composite materials are not yet used on the majority of the Lake Geneva fleet, numerous crews have drawn inspiration from these different, highly professional work methods to improve their performances. “The performance of these vessels has improved together with that of the crews who have been more than willing to hire professional coaches. The approach to work is much more precise now. Before the Alinghi adventure, these processes were restricted to Olympic sailing,” explains Bertrand Cardis.

Another sign of the growing passion for this sport is the sharp increase in the number of people enrolling for introductory courses in the region’s clubs. With certain boats – like the Mirabaud LX – already flirting with the air perched on their hydrofoils, what does the future of sailing hold?

According to Sebastian Schmidt, the limits are established by the current levels of knowledge concerning materials.

The only limit is our imagination. 

Pascal Vuilliomenet

Pascal Vuilliomenet nevertheless believes there is an ethical boundary which must not be crossed: “With the aim of going quicker, are we willing to pour polymers into the sea to optimise the boundary layer? What is the value of sport? Can sailors be replaced by machines? The answer is no; we have adopted a clear position in relation to that.” In more tangible terms, the lake needs versatile boats capable of operating without stopping. “That is exactly the compromise we endeavoured to achieve with the D35. The proof? Ladycat powered by Spindrift racing won the Bol d’or Mirabaud this year despite the presence of much quicker competitors,” stresses the architect before adding that “the only limit is our imagination.” Or when sailors dream of Icarus.   

Four questions for Bertrand Cardis

At the head of the Décision SA boatyard best known for having designed the Alinghi Americas Cup Class, Bertrand Cardis is one of the people shaping the face of the Swiss high-tech industry.

Is the future of Lake Geneva sailing characterised exclusively by multihulls?

No. Many multihulls are being built, but sailing these boats is such a complex operation that they are not suitable for general use. At present, a number of attractive series are being developed. The trend is for high-performance boats which are easy to handle and can be sailed with small crews. The Esse 850 is a good example. There are already one hundred such boats in Switzerland – it is the new Surprise!

Have Swiss inventions been copied elsewhere?

The gennaker on roller furling gear for multihulls! It was developed by Gérard Gautier and Laurent Bourgnon was taken by the idea, adapting it for Primagaz and launching the trend in the process. It is an invention that was born on the shores of Lake Geneva! Of course there is also TPT (thin ply technology) which was developed here by Gautier and his team.

Can the technological progress made in this sector be exported to other sectors?

Without a doubt, in the field of aviation. Thanks to these new materials, it is possible to build lighter, more solid constructions. I think there is a very large potential in this domain as the gains achieved (financial and environmental – ed.) by making the structures lighter are very clear. Moreover, TPT technology opens up the possibility of industrialisation. For us, the aim is to take advantage of the mechanical properties and the lightness of these materials. 

So could this progress be used in the future in the field of civil aviation?

Perhaps, but we can’t yet say with any real certainty.