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Spec Tech: High Tech Sailing In Science Fiction

September 23, 2010

Sailing ships in speculative fiction usually fall, by default, in the fantasy end of the spectrum. Sail is, after all, technically out of date and part of the misty past.

Or maybe not. The sailing ships of old were the technological marvels of their day. Even though sail is no longer considered commercially viable, the technology has continued to advance.

USA 17, the BMW/Oracle trimaran which won the last America’s Cup competition, has a 233 foot tall wing mast which is more than twice as long as the wing on a Boeing 747. The trimaran is capable of sailing at roughly three times the speed of the wind. The wing sail itself has more than 250 sensors collecting over 26,000 data points per second, providing the skipper all the information he or she needs to control the shape of the articulated wing for maximum performance. The boat itself is 90 feet long by 90 feet wide or roughly the size of a baseball infield.

USA17, however, is not the fastest boat on the water. Last December, the French hydrofoil trimaran l’Hydroptère set a speed record of 56.3 knots (65 mph) in around 30 knots of wind. The goal of the l’Hydroptère team is to develop a hydrofoil sail boat capable of circumnavigating the globe in 40 days by 2014.  l’Hydroptère uses conventional sails.

When it comes to pure sailing speed however, land and ice sailors leave the ocean sailors far behind. The current land speed sailing record is 126.2 mph set by Richard Jenkins in ‘Greenbird’ on Ivanpah Dry lake on the morning of March 26th 2009.   The unofficial record on ice was set in 1938 at 143 mph (230 km/h) on Lake Winnebago. This record has never been confirmed but ice boats, weird and wonderful combinations of sailboats and ice skates, almost routinely sail at speeds of four or five times the speed of the wind.

Exactly how one sails several times faster than the wind might not be obvious to non-sailors, yet isn’t difficult to understand.  Sailing faster than the wind downwind, is a bit harder to get one’s head around, but is still possible.  (Follow the links to see how it is done.)

But what does all this have to do with science fiction? My point is only that the potential for the exploration of advanced sailing technology has yet to be tapped in speculative fiction.  The sails don’t necessarily need to be either wings or soft sails either. In mid-August, the E Ship 1, a new ship was delivered with four Flettner rotors.    Flettner rotors are spinning columns which develop up to ten times the thrust per square foot as compared to conventional sails. More prosaically, oceangoing ships are testing flying large kites to save fuel.  Rigid sails covered with solar panels are also being used to generate electricity as well as wind powered propulsion for harbor ferries.

What I am describing is all fact. What sort of amazing sailing ships could imaginative writers of science fiction come up with?

And while not strictly speaking a sailing ship, I have a great idea for a steam-punk trireme, if anyone is interested.

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