Design, Build, Sail, with a dash of Anthropology
Sail, the historic implement of world exploration, has within itself many new horizons that beckon for pursuit, but you have to be willing to venture past charted waters.
– Gary Hoyt
What is the Orthogonal project?

The Orthogonal project is a syncretic design project that seeks to deploy some of the unique qualities of traditional Micronesian ocean voyaging sailcraft (generically, Proa) – such as lateral asymmetry and shunting – in a new kind of asymmetrical multihull sailcraft that leverages modern (and mostly sustainable) materials and methods to create new synthesis that is a viable solution for pressing economic, social and environmental needs of island and coastal communities.

Orthogonal is motivated by my deep interest in Micronesian traditions in seafaring and naval architecture and my commitment to preserving, publicizing and reviving those traditions. The pragmatic goal of the project is to help (in my small way) to develop viable sustainable solutions to some of the existential challenges these communities face.

Orthogonal is a transdisciplinary research project involving anthropology, hydrodynamics and aerodynamics, design prototyping, experimental structures and materials science, traditional and contemporary artisanal practices, sustainability and 'critical technical practice' (Agre). The Orthogonal project celebrates and learns from traditions of nonwestern sustainable science; endorses an holistic approach to design, and aspires to post-anthropocene sustainability.

“Orthogonal thinking draws from a variety of, and perhaps seemingly unrelated, perspectives to achieve new insights”. From Orthogonal thinking and doing.

Orthogonal project in Nov. 2020
Indigenous Micronesian naval architecture - overview

The boatbuilding and seafaring traditions of pacific islanders are a unique intellectual and cultural heritage. These capabilities led to the settlement of every habitable island across one-third of the surface area of the planet. Tragically, these traditions are mostly lost, due largely to the ravages of western colonialism, in its economic, military and religious forms. It is shameful that the places where these traditional survive tend to be the most isolated and least economically or strategically least valuable.

Traditional Proas
Micronesian Proas have a main hull and an ama (outrigger). The key quality of Micronesian craft that is radically different from Western norms is their asymmetry. Or rather, their axis of symmetry is rotated at right angles to western orientations. This structure in integral to their logic of maneuvering, which again is entirely non-western. While western sailcraft ‘tack’, proas ‘shunt’. Simply put, in order to turn (with respect to the wind direction), they reverse end for end, with the ama always remaining 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.
Proas (and their ilk) are fast and brutally efficient sailing machines that are excellently adapted to their contexts. The design and dynamics of traditional Proas is highly refined, technically sophisticated and utterly unlike conventional western naval architecture. The Orthogonal project recognizes the potential in the indigenous science and engineering of Pacific traditions. It seeks to learn from them and apply some of their principles.

What is unusual about Orthogonal?

Orthogonal is not by any means, an attempt to reconstruct a traditional Proa. In fact traditional pacific seafarers find the design completely weird.

3D modeling and animation by Michael Delessio. 2020
“Altantic” Proa. Orthogonal is a so called ‘atlantic proa’. This designation (a pun on ‘pacific’) was invented in the 1960 to describe a proa with the outrigger on the ‘wrong’ side – on the leeside as opposed to the windward. Dick Newick’s illustrious ‘Cheers’ was the first Atlantic Proa.

Shunting sailplan. Part of the design challenge of building a modern proa is to develop an easily shunted, but balanced sailplan – a sailplan that performs effectively going ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’. Traditional Proas shunt by dragging the entire rig from one end of the boat to the other- not a procedure one wants to do often, especially not in a big craft or in bad weather.

A major experimental aspect of the orthogonal design program has been to develop a fully bidirectional sailplan. 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. This is not a design challenge that conventional sail designers have faced. Orthogonal presents a unique solution to this design challenge (though it can be seen as a development form the AYRS Bolger rig and some of John Pizzey’s experiments. The key to Orthogonal’s design is that both sails are reversible in the sense that either vertical edge can be the luff (leading edge).

3D modeling and animation by Michael Delessio. 2020
Leeboard. A unique aspect of the Orthogonal design is the pivoting leeboard. Not only can this flip up for shallow water or beaching, but by adjusting its angle, the clr of the hull (center of lateral resistance). The craft can be balanced not by adjusting the sails but by changing the shape of the hull.

Leeboard completed awaiting paint
Flip-up quarter-hung rudders. Proas must be steerable from both ends, and this presents an issue of what to do with the front rudder. Orthogonal’s rudders flip up when not used or for beaching.

Quarter hung rudder casing being fitted, rudder blades, 4’ long, note bearing surface of graphite impregnated epoxy
Sails, spars and running rigging
A major design goal for Orthogonal is to develop a sailplan that is as easy to shunt as a Bermudan rig is to tack. The challenge of a proa sailplan is it has to be reversible and balanced. An unbalanced sailplan will push the hull to windward (weather helm) or to leeward (lee helm). Both are undesirable. This balance is achieved, essentially, by having as much sail area forward or the midpoint of the boat as is aft of it. Orthogonal achieves this with a pair of symmetrical isosceles sails, hung from masts equidistant from the midpoint of the boat (along the midline of the hull).

The sails are canted to leeward. This provides a gap between mast and sail, so negative effect of turbulence around mast is minimized. Each sail performs like a conventional genoa. A loosefooted spar (boom) joins tack and clew of each sail, maintaining sail curvature and permitting sheeting out when reaching or running. Two transverse tracks run across the deck amidships. When closehauled, the tack of the aft sail is hauled to windward, the clew of the forward sail is sheeted from the leeward end of the track. This creates a desirable ‘slot effect’. As the luff of the aft sail is to windward of the fwd sail, the aft sail is not expose to the fwd sail’s ‘dirty air’.

Special construction methods
Orthogonal is constructed of plywood skinned with epoxy and fiberglass. This is an established building method using a combination of industrial materials – plywood being an industrial composite utterly unlike ‘lumber’ in its behavior. Dimensionally stable and stronger than steel by weight, ply automatically generates smooth (hydrodynamic) curved when flexed, and in its flexed state, gains greater rigidity. The design of Orthogonal exploits this smooth curving, flex rigidity and triangulation, producing a maximally strong and light hull. Importantly, this method can be realized with minimal tooling in low-tech environments – on a beach, for instance. The skinning of the ply with epoxy and fiberglass produces a composite that adds toughness and abrasion resistance.

“Persuaded” ply. The orthogonal hull was built in a unique way. Each side was prepared as a 30’x4’ ply sheet (four 4x8 sheets scarf-joined). These sheets were stood up, clamped together and then sprung apart and squeezed together using specially made clamps. When the hull had bene bent to the right shape, internal braces (bulkheads) were added to stabilize the form. As the sides were bent, this caused the bows to kick up slightly, creating a desirable quality naval architects call ‘rocker’.

Epoxy filleting and glass laying. Surprisingly, no fasteners (nails, screws or bolts) are used in the hull itself (except for attaching fittings). All wood-wood joints are made using epoxy filleting. On an inside ‘corner’, a radiused join of epoxy filled with milled glass fiber and other fillers. This provides a curved surface upon which a bandage of wove n fiberglass can be laid on and bonded in. (These two processed are usually done together to ensure best bonds. Once the joint is set, the outside corner is radiused and a strip of fiberglass bandage is laid on. This creates a joint that is stronger than surrounding wood. It avoids point-loads associated with fasteners and creates a single coherent object of the entire hull, so that forces are distributed smoothly throughout. All joints have exterior glass bandage joints. A final layer of glass is laid over the entire hull.

Composite crossbeams. When sailing, much of the force on the sails bears down on the outrigger via the crossbeams. The joints at both ends of the crossbeams are the most stressed in the entire craft. The crossbeams for Orthogonal are conceived like conventional masts – compression members held in place by stays – in this case one fore, one aft and one under. The beams themselves are of unique construction – four aircraft grade aluminium tubes in a triangular arrangement, wrapped helically in both direction in fiberglass cloth bonded with epoxy, with the interstices filled with liquid polyurethane foam. This created a light, strong and rigid spar. (add pics of crossbeam)

Spring 2017. Jig for aka
Summer 2017. Jason, Steven and Eleanor glassing aka

Orthogonal Design Theory

historical research into marintime traditions

    Design, Visualization, Modeling, Prototyping

Materials & Methods,
Research & Development    

   Embodied Cognition
Material Engagement

Hands-on training
work experience    

   Economic & Environmental Sustainabiltiy
Cultural Survival

Orthogonal Design Philosophy

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. A very open, interdisciplinary, design space

  • Creatively, the project satisfies my desire to operate in a very open interdisciplinary design space that provides a very broad canvas for research, experimental design, technical problem-framing and the development of innovative tools, materials procedures and design solutions. It also fulfills my commitment to embrace the totality of the project, from research to big-picture design to the trivial aspects of hands-on making and to training and mentoring, and to reap (and document) the cognitive and design rewards of working in this way, while exploiting my experience as an artist, designer, technologist, sailor and boatbuilder.

    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 without creating destructive internal forces. 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 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).

    In naval architecture, the design process in which careful shaping of flexed planar shapes approximate hydrodynamically smooth complex curves with a minimum of joins offers particular possibilities and constraints is known by the awkward moniker of 'developable geometries'. It is used for steel and aluminium plate construction. (From a geometric point of view, this method is the obverse of the problem of cartography – rendering a curved plane on a flat plane). In conventional boat construction process a rigid framework is built first, then skinned. In the Orthogonal process, this procedure was 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.

    Design Freedom

    The forms and dynamics of traditional Oceanic boats, especially the asymmetrical ones, stand 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 engineering 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. The field is complex, with many environmental variables. An effective design has to work in a light breeze and be safe in a gale. A shape that works well on flat water will not survive in a swell. 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. Any naval architect will admit, boat design is a ‘black art’. Science can always be applied, but without intuition based on experience, it can create disaster. One balances judgement of acceptable risk against cost and general viability. Though it would be safe, no-one drives a Sherman tank to work. Likewise, one does not set sail a typhoon, if one can avoid it.

    Pacific traditional seafaring and boatbuilding

    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.

    Micronesian communities have a long (and almost lost) tradition of fast asymmetrical multihull sailboats (generally referred to as proa, or in french, prao), upon which both local and long distance ocean journeys were undertaken. These craft were recognized by the early European navigators as being much faster than European designs, but the principles of their design and operation were quite orthogonal to European methods.

    Extensive voyages were regularly undertaken. Pacific kingdoms had substantial armadas. In the 1560s, Portugese explorers met 500 sailcraft as they sailed into what is now Guam. A century later, James Cook's crew had never seen sailcraft that sailed so fast. The term ‘canoe’ has diminutive even infantalising connotations. But Tongan and Fijian navies had 100' warships capable of carrying 300 warriors, that sailed at over 20 knots. These were mostly built in the multicultural shipbuilding center of Lau, where the extraordinary Vesi tree provided ideal hull timbers.

    As western interests moved in, indigenous knowledge and practices, including indigenous seafaring and navigation traditions, were intentionally and often brutally suppressed. Trading and community networks (seaways) were broken as seafaring was prohibited, often due to the way they ‘crossed’ more recently imposed colonial borders. In the era of steam then diesel ships, indigenous peoples became dependent on fossil fuels and western style craft. In many places these traditions have been completely eradicated.

    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, traditional boat 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. Each community has, or had several variants, for voyaging, for trade, for fishing and for war. The indigenous traditions can be critique for being conservative, but this conservatism belies a brutal empiricism. As one master navigator said to me ‘we don’t copy the canoes that don’t come back’.

    Engineering refinements

    The Tepuke of the Solomons has torpedo-like submerged hulls, that exploit the SWATH principle (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull, see Others have asymmetrical hulls which provide lift to windward. As long ago as 1979 in his Aero-hydrodynamics of Sailing, C A Marchaj established that indigenous sail shapes, such as the 'crabclaw' are surprisingly efficient, and have aerodynamic performance characteristics that remain mysterious. 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.

    Symbiosis with local conditions.

    A little recognized quality of Micronesian craft is their adaptation to a world of atolls, reefs, lagoons and estuaries. Proas can navigate shallow waters safely and easily, permitting settlement of atolls with no deepwater harbors. Contrarily, the pattern of western settlement in the Pacific is entirely defined and constrained by the presence deepwater harbors.

    Similarly, oceanic designs are perfectly adapted to available resources, which are by definition sustainable – plant products. There is increasing evidence islanders carried useful plant to propagate in new settlements. No just food plants but for instance paper mulberry for cloth making. (see for instance Human mediated translocation of Pacific paper mulberry [Broussonetia papyrifera (L.) L’He´r. ex Vent. (Moraceae)]: Genetic evidence of dispersal routes in Remote Oceania. PLOS ONE | June 19, 2019)

    Mau Piailug, master navigator from Satawal

    Polynesian seafaring renaissance – the backstory

    In the 1970s, David Lewis (We, the Navigators,1975) 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. 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.

    Western experiments

    The first western catamaran, Amaryllis, designed by the great naval architect Nathanael Herreshoff, won the 1876 New York Centennial Regatta. As a result, multihulls were banned. (The sailing community tends to be conservative, and sometimes autocratic.)

    Amaryllis. Nathanliel Herrerschoff

    Although Nathaniel Herreschoff and others tinkered 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 and maritime adventurers like James Wharram and Dick Newick began to look carefully at pacific design traditions, and the era of the western multihull sailboat was born. These Catamarans and Trimarans were compatible with western hull and sail conventions. It has been said that the multihull community is the lunatic fringe of the sailing community and the proa community is the lunatic fringe of the multihull community. Even though they’d been proven for thousands of years in the Pacific, The idea of an asymmetrical, shunting craft was still too weird for western designers to consider. This changed with Dick Newicks's Cheers, the first 'atlantic' proa. This diminutive craft came third in the 1968 OSTAR solo transatlantic race, against boats three times its size.

    Cheers. Dick Newick

    Atlantic proas became rapidly fashionable for racing, especially in France, until several craft were lost or wrecked in ocean races. These disasters were probably the result if pushing the competitive envelope too far, at which point the conservatism of sailors again set in. More recently, we are seeing another chapter of interest in proas, propelled in part by Russell Browns’ Jzerro.

    Jzerro. Russell Brown

    "For me proas represent an alternate reality to mainstream sailing. They trade transverse symmetry for fore & aft symmetry and in doing so enter a different world of possibilities and constraints."
    Paul Bieker. (Naval architect and engineering, member of Team Oracle USA.)
    Sustainability and the Anthropocene

    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.



    There are and have been any number of proa ‘speed machines, from Crossbow to Sailrocket. The goals of Orthogonal are not of this kind. Orthogonal seeks to provide a practical solution to socioeconomic needs in isolated and cash-poor (island) communities. In many cases, a combination of isolation, poor infrastructure and dependence on fossil fuels, island communities impaired in getting products to and from market, and people to schools and hospitals. There is clear logic in reviving traditional sail-based seafaring for transport and trade.

    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. Orthogonal is affiliated with the MCST- Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport.

    Indigenous seafaring activism. 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 (Eastern Solomons), 500 sails (Saipan), Waa-gey (Yap FSM), Waan Aelõñ in Majel (Marshall is) and others.

    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 and 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.

    Project history and institutional context

    Penny began designing Orthogonal in 2014. Building began 2016. Anticipated launching for sea-trails have ben postpone due to covid and other annoyances.

    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.

    In the context of UCI UROP MDP and other connections, I’ve worked with over 50 UCI undergrads on the project, in hands-on making and also in design and 3D modelling. Some have come in with some experience and/or mechanical aptitude and have contributed significantly while learning new skills. Others have begun with minimal experience. Some have had epiphanies and become engrossed. Others have found their tasks tedious, onerous and irrelevant. I am grateful to them all for their efforts.