Sail Magazine has just published an interesting article on an experimental wind-powered vehicle that does its job amazingly well. And is also extremely ugly.

Background: “Common wisdom” shows us that a sailing vessel, when traveling directly downwind, can only move as fast as the wind that powers it. A well-designed sailboat, or landsailer, or iceboat, can move significantly faster than the wind on other courses, but not directly downwind.

So a bunch of really smart folks began debating in online forums about whether it would be possible to design a craft that could sail downwind faster than the wind blows. And while the debate was raging, some of them actually went out and built the thing. They thought it might go perhaps twice as fast as the wind.

In March, at the annual meet of the North American Land Sailing Association, on the flats of Ivanpah Dry Lake, near Primm, Nevada, it achieved 2.5 times the wind speed. The team is now shooting for three times the wind speed. They’re sponsored by Joby Energy, which develops airborne wind turbines, and by Google, which does everything.

So the thing works. And it is insanely ugly.

Lessons learned:

  • Sometimes, what we all think to be true, isn’t.
  • Really smart people are all around us. So are really obnoxious people. People who can get their ideas across without being obnoxious get listened to.
  • There’s a big difference between talking and doing.
  • Anybody can shoot off their mouth on the internet. Sometimes they also shoot off their foot.
  • Form-follows-function is nice. Purpose-built is nice. Ugly machines are still ugly.

Here’s a couple of samples of some of the debate that got this whole thing going. It gets a bit uncivilized in places:

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