Category Archives: Sailing

Nine Million Bicycles

I was listening to a song called Nine Million Bicycles by Katie Melua and wondering why it reminded me so much of riding in dusty old buses in the country…and then I suddenly realized the melody was a near exact match of the ballads I used to hear when travelling around asia many years ago.

The bridge of the tune, rather ironically, doesn’t fit and I am skeptical every time I hear her beckoning me to cross it with her. Warm by the fire? Just believe everything that she says? She offers hope in her words, yet her soothing voice is a haunting reminder of the lonliness that can often take a seat right next to you on a late night journey down empty roads. Have you ever leaned your head against a cold rattling window, unable to point the way home, and pulled your jacket tighter to try and shut out a chill?

And while I find myself wondering about the trust implied in her lyrics, perhaps in a similar way that Ulysses lashed himself to his mast near the Island of Sirens, others have apparently taken up a more literal issue with the lyrics of the song:

I suspect that Katie took some poetic licence in order to make her lyrics scan. She replaced the bisyllabic number “14” with the nearest monosyllabic number, namely 12″. This alteration is just about acceptable, but the next line in the song is unforgivable. To say that the age of the universe is “a guess” is an insult to a century of astronomical progress. The age of the universe is not just “a guess”, but rather it is a carefully measured number that is now known to a high degree of accuracy.

While Simon Singh is technically correct, I feel he is missing the point of her expressing a “fact” in the face of the number of bicycles in Beijing and age of the universe. Although we may feel small, and we may feel lost and insignificant, she tells us not to worry because there are boundaries in time and a real significance to our relationships. Perhaps the fire she sings of is something I was wishing for on all those long nights. A sad yet joyful ballad, about trust, love and…leaps of faith.

Now if I could just stop playing the song over and over again.

Financial impact of ethanol for boaters

The Press of Atlantic City has some good first-person accounts in their story on the ethanol problem for motorboats. The citations are a little suspicious because they say things like “Thomas estimates” without ever identifying who Thomas might be…. Anyway, they make a good attempt at trying to quantify the per-boat damage and costs from the sudden introduction of ethanol in New Jersey:

“It’s been a nightmare,â€? said Michael Advena, owner of Newport Marine Inc. in Ventnor. “During the first week this summer, we had 11 boats towed in. Out of those 11 boats, nine of them were fuel-related (problems).â€?


Thomas estimates that a carburetor ruined by fuel residue can cost about $700, plus a few hours of labor, to replace.

“You also get into towing fees,� Thomas said. “If it actually breaks down offshore.�

Fuel tanks can be even more costly. Boaters unwilling to wait for the ethanol to wash all the residue out of the tanks may choose to remove the fuel tank completely and have it power washed. Add on the expense of tearing up the boat deck to get to the fuel tank and the price tag can add up to several thousand dollars.

It is funny how biofuels are said to “clean out” the engines. Bio-diesel in an car or truck with high mileage often scrubs out all the old dirty petroleum waste, which obviously clogs filters. It is not unusual for a biofuel distributer to recommend that users change their filters more often. This seems like a minor inconvenience to me since a cleaner-running engine is a good thing both for health and maintenance. But the problem on boats is significantly greater.

My guess is that most pleasure boats do not have very clean filters to begin with (most people change their commuting/work vehicle oil regularly, but neglect motors for hobbies and toys) and their tanks are also not kept clean so the first blend of ethanol is more likely to cause problems than in automobiles. And that is not to mention that vehicles are far less susceptible to water than boats, as discussed earlier.

Diesel-hybrid sailboat launched

Lagoon 420 A 42 foot luxury catamaran called the Lagoon 420, which uses an innovative diesel-electric hybrid engine, was recently launched:

The latest version of the electric motors made an impression as she left the docks in silence. The electric motors had incredible torque, smooth acceleration was provided while working the throttles. The soundproofing of the genset compartment worked extremely well.

The “Hybrid Diesel-Electric Propulsion Drives” seem pretty straightfoward and sensible:

Complete installation comprises of two standard electric motors connected to propellers by straight shaft transmissions, one generator and two set of 6 batteries.

• When batteries are 100 % charged, the boat will be able to function with both motors for approximately two hours (depending on speed).

• When batteries are 80 % charged, the generator will automatically start and charge the batteries in order to provide electricity for the motors.

• When sailing, propellers will turn freely and recharge the batteries.

They even have survey results for the question “What do you consider important about a hybrid diesel-electric multihull?” Not the most scientific-looking survey (e.g. they just added a fourth choice and are mixing results), but still interesting.

Conservation and performance

Here are two examples of how auto industry leaders might finally be moving away from waste. That’s right, a new value is in town and those who demand quality are taking notice.

First of all, check out the age-old concept of reducing weight and excess in order to increase performance. Nothing really revolutionary here, except that these folks are taking conservation to a whole new level without sacrificing safety (I kind of like the fact that the title to their history page is misspelled and the source says it was created by a Macintosh — quirky but it makes them real). Porche and Corvette (e.g. the Z06) have been obsessing about reducing the weight in their designer profiles on a mostly superficial level (carbon fiber trim widgets look nice, but they are mostly band-aids) whereas this ultra-light exotic-killer is a revolution in engineering and powered only by a Honda civic engine:

Atom 2 power is from the new 2.0 Honda iVTEC engine now regarded as the best 4 cylinder production engine in the world. Featured in the Honda Civic and the Civic Type R the engine and gearbox combines Honda reliability, economic servicing and practical ownership. With the performance emphasis of the Atom geared towards acceleration and handling, the power to weight ration [sic] exceeds that of most supercars giving phenomenal performance and tracks times comparable with pure race cars.

Ah, but how many cup holders does it have? And when is the diesel version coming? Wrap a kevlar or nylon skin around that thing, like a canoe on wheels, and I’d drive it everywhere. Interesing that the alt tag on their main image is “No doors, No screen, No ignition key” but the image itself says “No doors, No screen, No roof”. This makes it seem a lot like a motorcycle with almost none of the risk.

The cost of a used Ariel is only about 25K pounds. With comparable performance to a Ferrari Enzo that costs about a half-million more, it seems like the difference between an A-Class Catamaran to a TP52. So instead of saying an A-Cat is the F1 of sailboats, I think it more appropriate now to call it the Ariel Atom 2. Incidentally, like the A-Cat the Ariel is not a new design but it has benefited greatly from advances in technology and many years of dedication by efficiency enthusiasts.

In other news it looks like BMW had a “duh, why weren’t we doing this already” moment at the end of last year.

The concept uses energy from the exhaust gasses of the traditional Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) to power a steam engine which also contributes power to the automobile – an overall 15 per cent improvement for the combined drive system. Even bigger news is that the drive has been designed so that it can be installed in existing model series – meaning that every model in the BMW range could become 15% more efficient overnight if the company chose to make the reduced consumption accessible to as many people as possible.

Combining the innovative assistance drive with a 1.8 litre BMW four-cylinder engine on the test rig reduced consumption by up to 15 percent and generated 10 kilowatts more power and 20 Nm more torque. This increased power and efficiency comes for, well, … nothing. The energy is extracted exclusively from the heat in the exhaust gases and cooling water so it is essentially a quantum leap in efficiency.

Funny, I haven’t heard or seen anyone with a BMW talking about their Turbosteamer technology. Is it real or just a gimmicky thing to market when people are getting antsy about efficiency and emissions? Also, apparently BMW researchers have not driven the Atom 2, or they might not be saying things like this:

“This project resolves the apparent contradiction between consumption and emission reductions on one hand, and performance and agility on the other,� commented Professor Burkhard Göschel.

Or maybe if your vehicles were not clad with excessive padding and did not weigh as much as a herd of cattle you might not need so much consumption and emissions to push them around? Quiet and plush (the main sources of weight) cars are nice, do not get me wrong, but we all know that quiet and plush are not the primary objective of the BMW performance engineers. This paragraph from the Ariel site puts it nicely:

After 3 solid days of testing and against cars as varied as a Porsche Carrera 4S, Noble M400, Westfield Sport and Lotus Elise the Ariel Atom 245 has been voted as Track Day Car of the Year by Track and Race car Magazine. A five man test team including race drivers Michael Mallock and Stephen Colbert were unanimous in their decision summing it up by saying: ‘The Atom wins because as soon as soon as you get in it, it’s almost as if that unique chassis suddenly becomes some form of exoskeleton. It’s as if you’ve grown Dymag wheels instead of hands and feet and your heart’s been replaced by a two litre iVTEC. Nothing made you feel more involved, or connected to the circuit beneath you.’

Like I said, throw some ultralight skin on that thing, change the gearing and it would be an awesome commuter car. Then convert it to honda’s hybrid-diesel powerplant to make today’s cars look like they were from the era of horse and buggy.

Multi-hull safety at sea and risk perception

I was asked to represent my local A-Cat fleet this evening at a club race planning meeting, to help bring us into the fold with the other approved one-design classes. It was a surprise to find most of the questions about the A-Cat, and multi-hull racing in general, related to safety concerns.

I had to explain the various risk factors and the safety measures I thought were appropriate for a high-performance ultra-light racing platform. This would have been easier if others sailed the same or even similar type boats, but you might say the difference between an A-Cat and a typical club racer is akin to the difference between a Mosler MT900s and a Toyota Camry. We’ve been sailing enough in local events, fortunately, that the issues were discussed with some real-world examples and in the end the fleet was approved.

People on sailing forums sometimes ask about A-Cat security and here are my thoughts in a nutshell:

I say a good radio, whistle, strobe, water and spare set of goggles/glasses (prescription) are most critical…a wetsuit is also typical gear for us where thicker ones give a fair amount of buoyancy. The way I look at it these basic items significantly reduce personal risk and you could still need them even if you manage to stay with the boat after a spill (torn sail, dismast, etc.). It’s bulky but to keep it nice an tidy (and reduce windage) I always wear a giant rashguard over everything.

And that just takes me back to an old Outside article on how to calculate risks during recreation:

NO WONDER, THEN, that the optimal adventure experience for many enthusiasts is one in which the perceived risk is high but the actual risk is acceptably low. Running rapids is a good example. “People look at big whitewater, and their perception is that it’s very dangerous,” says Pamela Dillon, executive director of the American Canoe Association. “But the stats tell a different tale. In sheer numbers—including canoeists, kayakers, and rafters—the most common way someone dies boating is in a canoe, on flatwater, with no PFD [personal flotation device], drinking alcohol.

“Fifty percent of people who die in canoes and kayaks are out fishing,” Dillon continues. “They’re not tuned in to the skills and information they need to participate safely.”

If there’s just one thing you could say about A-Cat sailors, I think “tuned in” might be it. Here’s Glenn doing a nice fly-by for the race committee (note the flat water):


Whale sinks sailboat

Here’s some news from the Ultimate 20 newsgroup:

A San Francisco Based 40 foot custom boat “Mureadritta’s XL” that did
the Pacific Cup SF to Hawaii race was on its way home yesterday when they were hit by a whale 500nm north of Hawaii.

The crew was in contact with the owner via Sat phone. They tried stuffing the hole with sails and wrapping the outside of the boat with a jib to stem the flow but were not having any luck.

They eventually decided to abandon the boat on Tuesday morning. They were picked up last night around 8pm by a ship then transfered to a fishing trawler and are expected back at Honolulu on Friday.

All sailors are safe and un injured. They had all the proper safety gear EPIRB etc. Very lucky crew.

Lucky? I think proper planning was probably more relevant in this story since hitting a whale and sinking 500 miles from shore seems like bad luck to me.

Interesting that innovation has made sailboats lighter and stronger, and personal rescue equipment more reliable and comfortable, but there really is no open water hull-patch kit available yet. Stuffing the hole with sails sound like a scene from a sci-fi movie where people patch the hole in a space station with their pillows. Didn’t Heinlein write about that too? I wonder if there could be a better way, like pushing an umbrella-like device through the hole that could expand and then seal against the hull to stop the leak at least to the point where a sump could keep up with the flow. Probably too expensive to make it worthwhile to develop and test since the threat (being hit by a whale) is low and the asset value (of a sailboat) is only marginally high. I had my share of dangerous experiences sailing across the Pacific, but fortunately the only whales I saw kept their distance.

Outdoor risk calculations

Outdoor magazine has a long but amusing story about risk and recreation:

In sheer numbers—including canoeists, kayakers, and rafters—the most common way someone dies boating is in a canoe, on flatwater, with no PFD [personal flotation device], drinking alcohol.

“Fifty percent of people who die in canoes and kayaks are out fishing,” Dillon continues. “They’re not tuned in to the skills and information they need to participate safely.”

Charlie Walbridge, longtime board member of the American Whitewater Safety Committee, has been tracking whitewater accidents for three decades. Like Dillon, he believes a failure to take sensible precautions is responsible for most deaths.

I always wear a lifejacket, but the issue I’ve run into is that the US Coast Guard does not consider 60 newtons sufficient for a recreational lifejacket yet the rest of the world does. It’s actually only a problem if you want to buy one of the new European lifejackets. One afternoon when I crashed an A-Class catamaran at speed, and was left swimming in the ocean swell a couple miles from shore, I have to admit I started to wonder whether the Coast Guard was right and I would have been taking a bigger risk with 5 fewer newtons…rough calculations are one thing, but eventually someone has to draw a line in the sand and we get to test it for accuracy.

Monitoring for structural failure

The sails on the new gargantuan $100 million luxury sailboat look awkward and inefficient to me, like wagon wheels on a modern sports car:

The Maltese sets sail

Built for venture capitalist Tom Perkins, the 87.5-meter yacht sports three 57-meter tall masts and each mast has 6 yards from which the sails hang. This design gives it a slight resemblance to a clipper ship.

A clipper ship? No. On second glance, I can see the wing-like properties of the sails perhaps equivalent to two modern sails laid opposite one another and connected together at the mast. Wonder what these hanging sails are made from and how long they are designed to last. Does each one furl into the boom above? This ship might be the largest, but I can’t believe it is the fastest, unless the term “personal yacht” somehow excludes the big trimarans and catamarans…or maybe just the word “yacht” excludes all the performance vessels. If you can’t beat ’em, build a new category?

Anyway, the masts have no stays and so I thought‘s note about monitoring for failures is interesting:

The company inserted sensors into the composite mast to give the crew information on the forces on the mast and prevent the structures from being pushed to the breaking point.

This reminds me of the prediction that sailboats will lose their rigging just like the wires of airplanes gave way to the clean lines of modern wings. Composites are a critical part of this development. Everything large that tries to be efficient now depends so much on carbon fiber that information about its use must be one of the most important resources for the future.

Wait, I know why those sails look antiquated to me. Isn’t that a modern version of Admiral Zheng’s giant fleet in the 1400s? I bet the bazillionare owner read a book about Zheng and said “Oooh, I want one”:


Ming dynasty records show that each treasure ship was 400 feet (122 metres) long and 160 feet (50 metres) wide. Bigger, in other words, than a football pitch.

Ok, the living space is obviously different, but that’s still a lot of monitoring for structural failure for over 500 years ago on many boats all significantly larger than this luxury yacht.