FutureSailing – Harbor Wing

Part One of a series of conversations with people who are driving profound changes in the way that we are able to sail. Once the opportunities are clear, how will people choose to sail?

I know a guy in Hawaii who says he’s years ahead of BMW Oracle in wing technology.

He has a point.

HWX3_Persp2 For one thing, Mark Ott and Harbor Wing Technologies have been at it since 2006, and they share brainpower with BMOR in the form of designers Gino Morelli and Pete Melvin, also David Hubbard. And they share brainpower with Britain’s TeamOrigin in the form of Stan Honey.

Mark Ott can make his prototype catamaran, powered by a freestanding wing, sail around a course with no one aboard—either self guided, or fly-by-wire under the direction of a game controller. Yep, a game controller.

That astounds me, and it doesn’t bug me one bit. I have no angst that machines could take over a corner of sailing.

But it’s important to consider what conversation you want to have. Are we talking sailboat racing as we know it, or futuresailing?
When Alinghi pulled a fast one and upped the ante on automation, and BMW Oracle benched some players and automated too (and I wonder, would that have happened, regardless, when the wing came along?) the conversation fed into the question of what’s right for sailboat racing. Lots of people think we’re straying too far from the good old days of racing, and Ott doesn’t necessarily disagree.

“The debate about the America’s Cup boats mirrors what went on in Formula One car racing a while ago,” Ott says. “They found they could run formula cars with computers doing the shifting and the compensating, and the drivers were just turning the wheel. That took something out of the competition, so they decided not to go down that road. They limited the computer input. But on my boats, I can control as much as I please.”


“And, sorry to correct you, but this isn’t future stuff. Sail-by-wire is here and now. Tack. Gybe. Depower. Depower is huge. Our system monitors speed and stability, and it can instantly depower a wing, which means you’re getting around the biggest issue in multihull racing—or fast cruising—the threat of capsize. The BMOR wing is held up by wires. That’s fine for racing in controlled conditions, but the boat wouldn’t last long at sea without capsizing. Depowering needs to be instantaneous. Also, to have a life outside something as rarified as the America’s Cup, a boat has to be able to live in slips or alongside docks where the wing can rotate idly. It wouldn’t do for most boats to copy the BMOR model of leaving the boat on a mooring for the whole thing to rotate 360 degrees. Our wing fits within the beam of a multihull. I could work with a monohull, but nowhere near as easily.”

Ott’s wing rotates 360 degrees, decoupling from the platform below in default mode and presenting, he says, less windage than a traditional rig with mast and rigging. Top and bottom sections are separately controlled, and to trim for sailing, it’s the twin tails that are computer-activated to control the power of the wing. Redundant electronic servos determine an exacting angle of attack. Once the tails are set, the wing assembly passively rotates in response to wind shifts—without servo movement—maintaining that angle.

Steering could be tiller or wheel. In Harbor Wing-speak, a single Morse-type throttle adjusts power: “The pilot moves the throttle forward for greater thrust, backward for reverse thrust or forward braking, while the middle or neutral position is ‘off’ or feathered.” Yes, it sounds a bit like driving a motorboat, without the motor.


Morelli himself tells me the Harbor Wing concept is an important advance, just waiting for the next “Tom Perkins” to step up with deep pockets to prove the technology at the high performance level, the luxury level, or both. One person with a joystick runs the whole show, and I’m imagining 30 knots on the ocean and plenty of joy. Or, maybe I’m feeling a bit beat up and I want an easier off-watch, so I depower for a slower speed. With the joystick, that is, not with a trip to the deck to change headsails or tuck in a reef.

The differences between soft sails and a wing are “apples and oranges,” Ott writes. “In considering the performance, control and development advantages of the hard wing, we have abandoned the paradigm of conventional sail performance and handling. One example of the wing’s capability is that it enables the Harbor Wing X-1 to come to a complete stop and then sail backwards with no change in real wind direction or speed.”

Hmm, does Ed Baird want to hear this?

‘Tis a far cry from what lures a schoonerman down to the sea (I hope there will always be a place for wooden boats and hemp line). This is even a far cry from how most people now get their speed thrills in fast boats (I can’t fathom a time when small-boat sailors don’t occasional clench the mainsheet in their teeth). But nobody’s suggesting that we have to give up anything. Traditions are ours to preserve. The future is ours to invent. The door is opening to a new kind of sailing, and I am as fascinated by this as I was the time I sat down with Tom Perkins, and he began to explain the Dynarig he was developing for Maltese Falcon.

Which sails quite well, by the way.

Saving the Oceans

While waiting for Mr. Right to come along and commission a wing for his next megayacht, Ott has spent four years in Honolulu developing the 30-foot prototype of a craft that is aimed at a different market, the surveillance market. Think fisheries, for example.


It was unregulated factory fishing off the coast of Somalia that strip-mined the waters and led to the first acts of resistance on the part of starving local fishermen, which inspired the bad guys and snowballed into the piracy problem that exists today. Governments around the world are looking for ways to monitor the fisheries
—this is, uh, an emergency—and Harbor Wing is offering what it calls an Autonomous Unmanned Surface Vessel to contribute what the company claims will be increased capabilities at reduced cost.

Perhaps this is a good spot to note that those deep foils you see in the renderings here are intended to lend extra stability to the autonomous vehicles. A racer/cruiser would probably have foils, but of a different shape.

Here’s how the company sees things:
Harbor Wing’s technology has advanced from the initial idea to a fully operational, proof of concept 1/3 scale demonstration vessel called X-1. This vessel has made history by becoming the world’s first sailing vessel that sails on all points of the wind while performing every function of a manned sailboat without any human intervention. By enabling this robot with electronic sensors to scan large areas for other vessels, above and below the ocean’s surface, and to transmit what it sees and hears via radio or satellite to a shore based station, Harbor Wing has created a very useful tool. The full scale AUSV prototype called X-3 is now in development. Outfitted with surface radar, electro-optical and infra-red cameras, sonar, satellite communications and other electronic sensors, X-3 will be a low cost, persistent long range and long mission duration Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance platform.

The AUSV’s 50’ X 40’ highly stable surface footprint with three hydrofoils deployed to depths of 12’ will enable it to operate in heavy seas and high winds. By utilizing the wind along with state of the art electrical storage and energy scavenging technologies, the X-3 robot will be able to patrol or hover about fixed locations for weeks or even months. It can patrol protected waters, acting as a policing agency’s eyes and ears to detect, deter, and document illegal activity. The data X-3 collects will be sent in real time to a shore station operator. Illegal fishing activity will be monitored and the appropriate agencies notified so ships can be impounded and catches seized when the vessels return to port.

The intent is to incorporate non-lethal defenses and enough observational capability so that, if the AUSV is attacked, the event is documented for follow-up action. And if this sounds a bit much, consider the extent to which the military already depends upon drones in combat roles. The fisheries are being depleted so rapidly, that problem probably deserves to be put on a war footing too.

Drop into harborwingtech.com for more about the company’s designs for unmanned surveillance vehicles, fully humaned-up recreational boats, and wing-assisted ferries.

Have a dream on me.

VLC in February?

It won’t be at all the right time for the south of Spain, unless you’re escaping London or Helsinki, but today’s court ruling appears to have America’s Cup 33 headed for Valencia in February, 2010. That would be the showdown between Alinghi’s giant catamaran and BMW Oracle’s giant, wing-powered tri.

A judge in New York ruled today that the defender cannot take the event to the UAE, to Ras Al Khaimah, and cannot include BMOR’s rudders in the measurement of load waterline. Straight wins for the American challenger, goose eggs for the defender who two years ago boasted, “We can’t lose. We have the best lawyers.”

But Valencia in February is unlikely to give us seabreeze sailing. At the 2007 event there, the seabreeze did not establish until late April/early May, after considerable consternation and anguished hangwringing. Unless defender and challenger can arrive by mutual consent at a later date—and that won’t happen if either perceives a tactical advantage in February—then February it will be. There’s talk of expanding the match from the Deed of Gift-mandated best-of-three races, and yes, we’ll hope that happens.

Mere sailboat racing aside, the fitting time would be mid-March, to coincide with Las Fallas, the Valencianos’ annual rite of spring, a time of purging when all the many Fallas-communities build grand sculptures of wood, cardboard and paper mache and blow off fireworks . . .


And then light the works and dang near burn down the town . . .


Whenever it happens, whatever happens, our own version of Las Fallas it will be.
America’s Cup 33, here we come.

Suns New Jerseys