February 25, 2010

A Post About Sailing


In a comment on my last post, the Lord God spake unto me and commandeth that I write about sailing.

I guess there is a chance it wasn't actually the Lord God who left the comment, but if you were me, would you risk it? Not me, I'm writing about sailing.

Which is just as well, because I've had one of those epiphanic moments after reading a number of seemingly unrelated blog posts over the past few weeks (I didn't think epiphanic was a word, either, but it is - I checked).

I'm going to play James Burke here and try to find a common thread in those posts. The only problem with James Burke, though, is that he takes forever to make his point. And that may be the only thing I have in common with him. To help make this easier, there's an intermission half-way through.

Here are the disparate posts:

- Tillerman reviews a book about the possibility of gas eventually costing $20/gallon

-  Some guy named Larry spends more money than anyone else in history just to win a sailboat race in a boat that is now useless to anyone (various posts).

- Frogma shows us something that looks like a bunch of popsicle sticks but was actually used by some very smart guys to navigate the Pacific Ocean hundreds of years ago.

- JP visits the British National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England and makes this wistful comment:

"...Maybe the day will come when sail will return, when using nothing and polluting nothing ... will once again be worth something..."

- and finally, Doryman has been posting for a while now about a wonderful wooden boat under construction at an avant garde furniture works in Italy. An ecology activist plans to sail (and row) the completed boat 3000 miles through Europe's rivers to draw attention to the potential for sustainable, non-polluting means of long-distance travel.

Okay, here's my little James Burke experiment.

We've all just witnessed the, um, 'spectacle' of possibly the most bizarre America's Cup in history. While most of us were blown away by the sight of these impossibly huge boats going impossibly fast, there was also something a little too weird about it all.

Yes, there was the unease about the bitterness of the legal wrangling. There was the distaste about Ellison sidestepping all other potential contenders. There was the fretting about whether the 'image' of the cup had been hopelessly tarnished. But I think there was something more disturbing than all of that.

Somehow, Larry and Ernesto had just gone too far. The boats were too big and too expensive - to me, they were more than a little grotesque. Besides being possibly the worst boats ever built for the normally delicate pas de deux of match racing, they were also impossibly extravagant for our times. While there may have been a majesty to the huge J-Boats of the 1930's that only the wealthiest yachtsmen of that era could afford, these boats seemed caricatures of those. Today, it's getting harder and harder to cheer on such gross examples of conspicuous over-consumption.

As a planet, we're starting to run out. To run dry. The very earth itself is showing the strains of our excesses in ways we can no longer ignore. Shouldn't the wealthiest among us be leading the charge for conserving resources and leaving a small footprint?

I'm much more impressed with what Giacomo De Stefano and his team of artisan shipwrights are doing than with anything Larry Ellison's done lately. Somewhat reminiscent of those Polynesian navigators in Frogma's post, Giacomo is providing a modern example of how simple, non-polluting materials can provide durable long-distance transportation - something that will become a lot more important to us as the cost of fossil fuels continues to go through the roof. He also suggests that waterways, which were our principle arteries of commerce for thousands of years, may be an important key to solving the huge problems looming on our highways and airways.

So where am I going with all of this? Maybe, we should have some popcorn first.

//////////   I N T E R M I S S I O N   \\\\\\\\\\\\\\

We all know about what's happening to the price of gas and how that must eventually affect the kinds of cars we will be driving, or lead many of us to use trains and bicycles a lot more than before.

But there's less discussion about what this will mean for commercial aviation. Airliners typically burn 1000 - 3000 gallons per hour and there are something like 50,000 scheduled flights worldwide every day, a consumption rate that is only helping to drive the cost of fuel up. Even if these numbers aren't terribly accurate, the point is that sooner or later, commercial flights will get too expensive for ordinary people to afford. Maybe not tomorrow or even in ten years, but eventually, it's inevitable. What then?

How will we get across oceans when our beloved airliners are no longer an option for most of us?

There was some talk a few years back about reviving airships for both hauling freight and passengers over long distances. Laugh if you like, but the numbers were compelling. Modern airships could cover long hauls using a fraction of the fuel of an airliner and at speeds that would get you from New York to London in about a day and a half  - in cabins something like those on a cruise ship. The numbers didn't quite make this a practical alternative ten years ago (when fuel was aboout $2/gallon in the US), but that could very well change when fuel reaches $20/gallon.

Ah, but a day and a half to cross the Atlantic, you say. Who would put up with that? Won't we always demand the fastest transport available?

Apparently, not.

Does anyone remember the Concorde? Forty years ago, our technology was advanced enough to build a workable airliner that was two hours quicker to London than a 747. But the numbers just didn't add up. As fuel got more expensive, not enough could afford the faster alternative to keep it flying. Was the Concorde the handwriting on the wall of our future?

If airliners will be too expensive and airships maybe a bit too wonky, can you think of another way passengers might cross an ocean using very little fuel?

How about something like this:

Or this:

Okay, these are expensive luxury cruise ships that probably would cost as much to book as a seat on a 747 burning $20/gallon fuel. But these were the only example photos I could find. Think of them as a proof of concept.

Suppose modern construction techniques were applied to build something more practical, utilitarian, efficient - and faster? Hmmm...

Were Frogma's ancient navigators pointing the way to our future?

Are the wooden boatbuilders in Italy more than just idle dreamers?

Is there prophecy in JP's comment?

And, ironically, was there something useful and practical after all in those preposterous boats at Valencia? Will carbon fiber multihulls and high-tech solid wing sails be the technology we'll need for long-distance travel when the pump finally runs dry?

I can't help but think that, in the long curve of human history, our love affair with petrochemicals will one day be seen as a curious blip. Will we eventually be crossing oceans again the way we did for centuries - in big boats with sails on top?

What do you think?



  1. O-dude, this was a brilliant post and not because I was going to write my next post on my connection with GSA/Ecoflag and just speaking with them about some coverage of my 2012 voyage with the Ecoflag proudly blowing in the wind, reminding all those who see it, we have a responsibility to the earth and those who live on it and we are blowing it.No not just because of that or it gives me a shot at a little pre-post advertising not only for my self but for Ecoflaag.com. No not that, but just because it was a post about sailing, and the environment and how wasteful those rich guys are with their toys. I'm hella proud of you homie! Give em hell!

  2. Oh, BTW, I think it was God who said post about sailing not Lord God. Anyway as we say in Zen, it's just a name. We could just call him Big George or Mary or Billy-Jean to cover both bases.

    Yawn, I'm tired.

  3. O, you definitely have something here. Anybody remember Calypso's sister ship, Alcyone, which used a wind-propulsion system even more radical than that of BMWO?

  4. How much of “our love affair with petrochemicals” is as a result of brain washing by the mass producing, plastic boat industry’s advertising department.

    My Wooden Boat is sixty years old and will probably out live me.

    How many plastic boats do you know that are sixty years old and still looking good?

    They tell us that plastic boats will last forever, the plastic might but will the boat?

  5. Great, thought provoking post - it's worth thinking about what would happen in a post petroleum age, particularly given all the talk about peak oil:


  6. I remember sitting on a tall ship, the SV Mandalay, on the dock in Grenada prior to starting a cruise run by the ill-fated and now defunct Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. The captain was the recently deceased Cornelius Plantefaber, better known as Captain Casey.

    As part of his pre-cruise briefing to the passengers, Casey was explaining the difference between a "boat" and a "ship". He pointed to the Yankee Clipper a smaller sister ship of the Mandalay behind us on the dock, and said, "That is a boat."

    He waved his arm at his own vessel and proudly declared, "This is a ship."

    And then he pointed at one of those modern luxury cruise liners with a few sails just for show like the one in O Docker's second sailboat photo and explained to us, "And that.... that is a piece of shit!"

    Ah. Happy days.

  7. Well done my son. This the most brilliant post about popcorn that I have ever read. How do you do it?

    Blessed are the postmakers, for they shall inherit the wurst.

  8. I am an oil painter that paints boats and I was hoping to get your permission to use one of your photos on your blog as an inspiration for a painting. It is called Morning Light. Can you let me know if that is ok?
    I am always looking for photos of sailboats for paintings. Let me know if you know of any other resources. Thanks!

  9. I like the cut of your jib, O'Docker. You may be interested in taking a look at this site.

  10. Aren't those epiphanous moments just grand?!

    There is no specific reason that the concept of Less is More should be reactionary.

    The ancient Polynesians were incredible navigators, but their boats were water soluble. We can do better than that.

    Giacomo is trying to show us how cooperation can be more powerful than competition. His project is prophetic.


  11. Abolishing air travel and using sailing ships instead will also force everybody to spend a few days on the deck of a clipper experiencing the sky and the ocean instead of being crammed into a flying tin can breathing 300 other people's used air. It would have an amazing effect on human morale and probably cure all known diseases.

  12. Well said ChrisP. Based on my own experience I am convinced that air travel and Christmas trees are the cause of all known diseases.

  13. I think I'm most concerned for the welfare of that poor little child who follows me around all over the world. He always sits in the seat behind me and is able to keep kicking for hours, no matter how long the flight lasts.

    I worry what will happen to his health, deprived of this vital exercise.

  14. they get to run (& slip) on deck of the oceanliner

  15. Zen, good luck on pulling things together for your voyage.

    Is there a history of Islander 29's doing blue water passages?

  16. They were built for Blue water. Two have been around the cape twice, tow have been to Hawaii. One is down under. There is another planning on Hawaii around the same time as me, from LA. They are listed in that book, small boats to sail anywhere, or something like that :-)

  17. "Go small, go simple, go now." Someone said that.

  18. It think it was someone named Larry, but not Ellison.

    There may be another blogpost here.

    Cousteau's whacky 'turbosail', with a cylinder enclosing the sail and a fan extracting air from the top of the cylinder (thanks Carol Anne).

    Skysails - giant kites pulling freighters, like the ones kite surfers use, only a hundred times bigger (thanks Captain Puffy).

    I wonder how many other wonky ideas there are out there for dealing with the fuel crunch.

    Tugster posted yesterday about ships now cutting back from normal cruising speed to save fuel.

    As shipping was transitioning from sails to engines at the turn of the last century, some ships carried both for a while. I wonder if we'll again see 'hybrid' ships using sail power to cut fuel costs.

  19. One other interesting bit of history about when boats were changing from sails to engines: The coal to fuel the boats with engines was usually delivered by sail. Boats with engines were used for passengers and time-sensitive cargo, such as mail. But they were very expensive to run. So sailing ships were used to deliver the coal to the ports where the ships with engines would refuel.

  20. An even better ocean liner would be one in which all the passengers rowed. They would lose all their body fat on the passage. Bring back the galleys!

  21. At anything over about $120/barrel for oil, airlines become uneconomic. As for ships, the worlds "fast container ships" are already in mothballs.

    Sailing ships? Yes, and perhaps other new modes. I did a post on Pacific Islander a while ago about Kenichi Norie (who has crossed the Pacific solo several times using wind power, solar power, and just his own power) making a trip in 2008 from Hawaii to Japan aboard the catamaran Suntory Mermaid II using only the energy of the waves to move him along.

    Clearly, we will use sail. Equally as clear, we will no longer have a stream of fossil fueled monsters streaming across the ocean to feed likes of Walmart. We will live and travel, and consume more locally.

    Somehow I think the "post carbon" world will be a good thing.

  22. Interesting article from the London Financial Times, Panda. Is there a parallel here with the Concorde, also retired from use by economic pressures?

    I see that the ships referenced are owned by Maersk - the company which, according to Tugster's post, has initiated the most radical speed reductions for the rest of its fleet.

    These developments mean it makes more economic sense to slow ships down, add spare ships to services and conserve fuel than to focus on speed. Average speeds, once well above 20 knots, are now falling to about 14 knots. (emphasis mine)

    Hmmm, 14 knots is a speed that could probably be maintained by a large, modern cargo-carrying sailing ship.

    And there's this, too, (which I hadn't read until after I wrote this post). A SF Bay area company is pitching a catamaran fitted with solid wing sails to be used for ferry service in the bay.

    Apparently, Kimball Livingston did an article about this recently in Scuttlebutt, but I can't find it - does anyone have the link?

    There's also this somewhat spooky company that supposedly is already making a solid-wing unmanned trimaran for our military that does reconnaisance and god knows what other kind of missions.

    This might be a good solution for those of us who are so wrapped up in our jobs and personal lives that we no longer have any time to sail. We could just send our boats out sailing on their own, so that all that great wind is at least not going to waste.

  23. You don't need a modern ship to maintain 14 knots. Typical windjammers could get about 15, with some ships regularly logging 18 knots, and one setting a record at 21. Clippers could go faster (most about 16, record 22), but they couldn't carry so much cargo.

  24. Geez. Got all caught up in the hockey and missed out on the fun at O Dock this past week.