Keith Elliott at Large: Simon Sanderson and his amazing surfing catamaran: British astro-physicist with toughened keel harbours unquenchable desire to break speed sailing record in skeletal craft of his own design

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The Independent Online
THE man who is out to become the world's fastest sailor has one advantage over all his rivals. Ask Simon Sanderson, and he'll tell you that his experience as a former national speed champion and wind-surfing professional will play a key part. He is also convinced that his skeletal catamaran, prototype of greater things to come, will soon set a British best and provide the foundations for his record bid. But he possesses another asset that will leave his challengers far behind - a hard-as-leather backside.

After years of top-flight cycling, from time trials to an attempt on the human-powered land speed record, his posterior is now eminently suited to riding the only sporting surface even more uncomfortable than a racing saddle.

For even by sailing standards, Sanderson's revolutionary boat, which he describes as a catamaran using windsurfing technology, promises to be bum-numbingly painful. With six-metre, twin carbon-fibre hulls, the whole caboodle weighs a mere 10st. It may look like a toy, but Sanderson is convinced that it will exceed the British record of 29 knots and prove that his innovative design, when reproduced in the family size, is capable of topping 50 knots - the speed sailor's Holy Grail.

Sanderson, who lives in a Norfolk seaside village, is convinced that windsurfing technology, rather than traditional boat design, is the way forward. This represents the beginning of a new era. 'I think this has huge applications for sailing generally, and that it will make every offshore racing hull instantly obsolete,' he says. Brave words - but his pedigree is impeccable.

He was designing his own model boats when just 10 years old. He took part in the Weymouth Trials, the Wimbledon of speed sailing, three years later. The years he should have been chasing girls and getting drunk were spent designing and refining model racing boats. At university, he studied astro-physics. ('Most of it I already knew about.') Four years designing and building human-powered vehicles (bikes to you and me), left him the fastest cycler in Europe. After four years working on hydrofoils for Colt Cars, he discovered windsurfing, joined the pro circuit and became obsessed with board design. In 1989, the windsurfing speed record was set on a Sanderson-designed board.

The former speed record holder, David Pelly, says: 'If you want to achieve the fastest sailing boat in the world, who would you go to? Someone who understands the science of sailing, an expert on building strong, light structures and someone who can turn a brilliant idea into a practical vehicle. Such people are very rare and I can think of only one: Simon Sanderson.'

From his back garden, Sanderson can just about see the stretch of water where he intends to set the British record. 'I have sailed the world circuit and Thornham is the best sea course I have ever seen. It has a long, straight beach across the harbour entrance, and nothing upwind except salt marshes. There is no turbulence and quite flat water.'

His dream boat has been seven years in conception. Built with a Sports and Arts Council grant, it has already travelled in low winds at more than 20 knots. His record attempt will take place when the wind is right, and as soon as he's raised enough money ('The grant's run out') from his boat-repair work to pay for the official timing equipment.

His partner is Tom Marriott, an oceanographer and avid sailor who turned down a job running a clam farm in the Marshall Islands (an island hop from Papua New Guinea) so he could help with the record attempt. At low speeds the craft (called '15' until a sponsor comes along) only needs Sanderson, but as the winds near the optimum 25 knots, Marriott will provide extra ballast so the thing can skim along on one hull, its crew looking as if they're fighting an unwinnable battle to bring it back level again.

'This is just the start,' Sanderson said. 'What I really want is to build a bigger version that will bring all the records back to Britain, including the 12 and 24-hour ones.' The bad news is that big brother will cost about pounds 300,000.

However, even that is not the apex of his ambitions. Although Sanderson, an ascetic-looking 36-year-old, doesn't drive (if he did, you can be sure he would be racing), he would like to build an electric car.

But his real dream is to design a racing solar wind space sailing craft. Sounds ridiculous? 'I believe Caltech and MIT will have the first space sailing race next year,' he said. 'I've done my own feasibility studies, and would like to design the British entry.' He would like to race it, too. In fact, he would probably have to. It would be too uncomfortable for anyone else.