design, build, sail, with a dash of anthropology

This prospectus provides a summary of the Orthogonal project to build a new kind of asymmetrical multihull sailcraft. It an ongoing, interdisciplinary project, combining design and pedagogy with indigenous knowledge systems and with the embodied intelligences of sailing and of skilled making and tool use. The Orthogonal project celebrates and learns from traditions of nonwestern sustainable science; actively combats the mind-body dualism entrenched in our academic institutions; and aspires to post-anthropocene sustainability. Penny began designing Orthogonal in 2014. Building began 2016. We anticipate launching for sea-trails summer 2018.

Characteristics of Micronesian asymmetrical outrigger craft

Micronesian asymmetrical outrigger craft (generically called Proa) have a main hull and an ama (outrigger). They do not tack like western sailcraft, but ‘shunt’, reversing end for end, with the ama always on the windward side. This kind of asymmetry presents both opportunities and difficulties. It permits light, fast, craft of extremely shallow draft, but shunting the rig traditionally involves dragging sail and yards to the other end of the boat.

Orthogonal Design Goals

• The Orthogonal project seeks to design and build, from the ground up, a new kind of asymmetrical ocean going multihull sailcraft, combining lessons from Pacific design traditions, with modern materials. Orthogonal is an ‘Atlantic’ proa, with the outrigger on the leeside.
• A central design goal of Orthogonal is to create a sailplan which is as easy to shunt as a conventional western rig is to tack. A major experimental aspect of the orthogonal design is a fully bidirectional sailplan (ie, luff becomes leech and vice versa).
• The project pursues a hands-on, mid-tech, low-budget building practice, carefully selecting materials and methods that tread a middle-way between traditional high skill adze-hewn methods and high-performance high-cost modern composites which require high-tech facilities and have significant health and environmental costs.
• The project seeks to develop design and construction (and repair) methods feasible in isolated locations - on the beach, with hand-tools only, if necessary.
• The project seeks to develop designs which lend themselves to the larger project of reintroducing sustainable wind powered coastal and ocean travel, transport and commerce, particularly in island and third world locations. (see Note2)

Materials and Design

Unlike other initiatives which endorse high tech composite foam/fiberglass and infusion production, Orthogonal endorses the use of plywood for its strength and sustainability, with the addition of glass/epoxy, in the mode of stitch-n-glue construction, developed for lightweight sailcraft construction 3 decades ago.
In an effort to simplify construction and economise on materials, the sides of the boat were made as two flat rectangles, 30’x4’ (each 4 sheets, scarfed together). The design intention was to explore how ‘boat-like’ a shape could be made by flexing these planes. A surprisingly pleasing and hydrodynamically efficient form emerged, with a narrow flat ‘dory’ sole. An added bonus was that in the flexing process, the bows ‘kicked up’ providing rocker organically and ‘for free’.
In conventional boat construction process a rigid framework is built first, then skinned. In the Orthogonal process, this procedure is reversed. In building Orthogonal, the skin was bent to shape first, exploiting the uniformity of the material to create hydrodynamically smooth curves. Then bulkheads and other stiffening put in later.
In Orthogonal, ply is flexed and sometimes twisted to create added rigidity (but carefully, to avoid overstressing and delamination). Triangulation is exploited as often as possible. (In this context, parallel planes are simply wrong). Making designs in which careful shaping of flexed planar shapes approximate hydrodynamically smooth complex curves with a minimum of joins offers particular possibilities and constraints. This design process is known in naval architecture by the awkward moniker of ‘developable geometries’. (From a geometric point of view, this method is the obverse of the problem of cartography – rendering a curved plane on a flat plane).

Design Freedom

The forms and dynamics of traditional Oceanic boats, especially the asymmetrical ones, stand largely outside western naval architectural traditions, so only the most general of engineering formulas and equations are relevant. This creates a very open design space where design conventions are largely absent. Basic hydrodynamics and aerodynamics is applied, but beyond that, design decisions are based on sailing and building experience, material experiments and scale models. Design process is iterative and processual. You rely on your wits and ultimately, will sink or swim based largely on ‘intuitive’ design decisions. Is the bow fine enough? Where will the water level be? Is this member strong enough? Who knows? A large enough earthquake will destroy any building, and large enough storm, any boat. One balances judgement of acceptable risk against cost and general viability. Though it would be safe, no-one drives a Sherman tank to work. It would be foolish to go sailing in a hurricane.

For a Sustainable Maritime Future

The end goal of the project – the production of a low cost, easy to build, fast and efficient ocean-going sailcraft - is not casual or arbitrary. For most of the history of the human race, travel on water has been wind-powered. For barely a century and a half, such travel has been fossil-fuel powered. We must remember this situation is not ‘normal’ and it will not last. In addition, the environmental consequences are horrendous. The 15 biggest ships produce more sulfur oxide pollutants than all the cars in the world. Humans must return to sustainable wind-powered navigation for trade and travel. The Orthogonal project is positioned in this perspective. In October 2017, aspects of sustainability activism and anthropology were foregrounded in a two-day conference at UCI entitled An Ocean of Knowledge: Pacific seafaring traditions, cultural survival and sustainability (directed by Simon Penny.) This event brought together climate scientists, representatives of pacific island activist organisations and local diasporic communities. Penny is affiliated with MCST (Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport (Marshall Islands), Vaka.org (Eastern Solomons), Waa-gey (Yap FSM), and 500 Sails (Saipan).

Ancient and Colonial History

Over 2500 years, people explored and settled virtually all the far-flung atolls and islands of the vast pacific, about 1/3 of the planet. They did this with maritime technologies and navigational systems in advance of, and incommensurable with, western forms. Extensive voyages were regularly undertaken. Pacific kingdoms had substantial armadas. In the 1560s, Portugese explorers met five hundred sailcraft as they sailed into what is now Guam. A century later, James Cook’s crew had never seen sailcraft so fast. Tongan and Fijian navies had 100’ craft capable of carrying 300 warriors. When islands were colonized, (in the era of steam then diesel ships) suppression of indigenous knowledge and practices began. In many places these traditions have been completely eradicated.

Recent history

Although Nathaniel Herreschoff and others did tinker with multihulls in the late C19th, it was not until after WWII that the brilliance of these traditions was more generally recognized in the West. In the 1960s, maverick designers like James Wharram and Dick Newick began to look carefully at pacific design traditions, and the era of the western multihull sailboat was born. At the same time, David Lewis and others were rediscovering and demonstrating the viability of indigenous boatbuilding, seafaring and navigation techniques. In Hawaii, in the 1970s, the Polynesian Voyaging Society was formed and a replica Polynesian catamaran Hokule’a was built. It sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti and back establishing the truth behind ‘myths’ of indigenous voyaging.

Polynesian seafaring renaissance – the backstory

The success of the voyage of the Hokule’a, and the beginning of this renaissance of pacific island voyaging was in large part due to Mau Piailug, a traditional master navigator from Satawal atoll in the Caroline islands, who recognised that the long history of his traditions would end unless he broke with taboo and made his knowledge available outside his clan and his small nation. Today there are several indigenous projects involved in the rescue or resuscitation of lost or almost lost seafaring traditions as solutions to cultural, social, economic, and environmental challenges of pacific communities. These include Vaka.org (Eastern Solomons), 500 sails (Saipan), Waa-gey (Yap FSM), Waan Aelõñ in Majel (Marshall is) and others.

Indigenous Science

The islanders perfected systems of celestial navigation without maps or instruments. They developed special skill reading environmental cues, including the ability to ‘read’ swells and the movement of their boats in terms of subtle secondary swells which informed them of the presence of land masses beyond the horizon (wave-piloting). Similarly, boat traditional designs are highly precise, each community guild of makers preserving their secrets in oral traditions passed down through years of apprenticeship, using ‘peg and cord geometry’ like that used to build gothic cathedrals. Islander boat designs and sailing procedures are quite unlike western ones. The Tepuke of the Solomon has torpedo-like submerged hulls, others have asymmetrical hulls which provide lift to windward. Sail shapes, such as the ‘crabclaw’ continue to reveal secrets of aerodynamic sophistication. Almost all pacific boats are assembled without fasteners, and use handmade coconut fiber rope in sophisticated lashing techniques (which provide flexibility), often deploying complex polyhedral triangulation.

Embodied Cognition and Pedagogy

Sailing, seamanship and boatbuilding are modalities of human intelligence that are inescapably embodied. This does not simply mean they involve physical activities with materials and tools, but that these kinds of intelligences are simply impossible without the embodied dimension. The Orthogonal project is explicitly committed to the recognition of these modalities of intelligence, in order to compensate for the extremism of the academy in its commitment to abstraction. Making keeps us humble – no amount of handwaving can disguise a bad cut or a bad joint. It cultivates skills of patience and diligence unfamiliar to most students. The radical interdisciplinarity of the Orthogonal project is captured in its slogan design-build-sail, with a dash of anthropology. Orthogonal is pursued as a semi-formalised design project on a university campus with largely unskilled, mostly engineering, student assistants. As such, half the work of the project is in development of skills and design understandings among these born-digital students, whose grasp on the realities of materiality – and the iterative and cumulative nature of the design R+D process– even as engineers – is tenuous This pedagogical process intersects with another professional focus of the author – that of embodied cognition and material engagement. (See sites.uci.edu/BoK2017 and https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/making-sense) A major task is to show these students - through practical experience - the artificiality of the conventional academic separation of matter and information, mind and body, intellect and materiality. This is an arduous process, incompatible with the pedagogical practices of the conventional academy. Like learning a new language, each student must be incrementally bootstrapped into increasing understanding of the intelligences of making. It is achieved through a combination of demonstrations, experiential lessons, carefully calibrated design/construction assignments and curmudgeonly harranging. As an example, take the problem of ensuring that a large, curvaceous, unstable, non-quadrilateral object (the hull) is indeed symmetrical, in a context where not even the ground can be relied upon to be flat and level. Building a reliable frame of reference requires the development of an understanding the fundamentals of peg and cord geometry. Using strings, plumb bobs and bubble levels, a horizontal line, a reference plane, then a set of reference planes is built up. Such hands-on tasks demonstrate that the simplest of tools and the simplest of tasks inhere substantial reasoning, analysis, and intellectual rigor.

Interdisciplinarity and research/creation

Terms like practice-led research, research based art-practice and research-creation attest to a felt need to expand conventional academic research/learning processes as well as art practices. Orthogonal combines historical and anthropological research, aero and hydrodynamics, engineering design and manual/artisanal making practice into an integrated process.

The Orthogonal team is grateful for the in kind support of the Dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts (providing space for building Orthogonal) and to the CALIT2/UROP Multidisciplinary Design Projects program which has afforded a structure in which students can work on the project, along with a small budget. Professor Penny is also grateful to UCI CORCL for a small grant towards the project.