Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Volitan: Bad Design, Wharram: Good Design

This Volitan boat is featured prominently on a number of "Green Design" blogs, as well as June's Pacific Yachting magazine. I saw it at the checkstand while buying lines at West Marine. Google "Volitan boat", you'll find it.

This is literally the dumbest boat design I've ever seen. Where do I start.

First., we already have an existing technology for eco-friendly boat propulsion. They’re called “sails”. Hey genius, you're 5,000 years behind the news...

The site touts the twin 225 horsepower electric engines. At approximately 746 watts per 1 horsepower, that's 335,700 watts. Judging by the picture, the wings are about 92 feet tip to tip by about 10 feet wide. That's 920 square feet of solar panels, or about 86 square meters. Because of the X-wing design, only one of the wingtops will ever be facing the sun. (And the solar panels on the bottom of the wing never will be, what's that about?) At a charge rate of 150 watts per square meter per hour times 43 square meters, and assuming climate and weather allows 10 hours of direct sunlight per day, you'd need to soak up over 5 days of blazing sunshine to motor for one hour at full throttle. Well, maybe that tiny wind generator at the top of the mast will help. Or maybe you can throttle WAY back and just kinda bob around...

Notice the entire boat is enclosed:

Less usable deck space than a Colombian Narcosub:

This starship/greenhouse design makes it impossible to actually interact with the ocean. Now in order to "sail" (I cringe at the thought of using that term to describe motoring VERY slowly while powered by tiny windmill) you'll no doubt need a bunch of sensors to let you know wind direction and force, sea state, etc. Since the "sails" are solid (and not foil shaped -- how's that gonna work?!?!?!) they offer no visual or auditory feedback that you're luffing or stalled. More sensors I guess? The systems are all electronic and hydraulic. And new and custom and untested and non-redundant. This is the type of thinking that Michael Pollan describes as splitting a holistic, elegant solution into multiple, discrete problems.

The sheer dimensions are ludicrous: a 100' boat with a 92' beam -- good times docking this beast! The building materials are pure Unobtainium and the scale guarantees that only billionaires will be shopping for this marvel of sustainability.

Shift your eyes away from the big picture down to the details: Where are the deck cleats to tie this montrosity to a dock? Where's the anchor windlass? Missing are the myriad and sundry details that allow you to live, work, and play on a boat. Has this guy ever even been on a boat? The propellers are at the very bottom of the x-wing keels. Hmm, do you think over hundreds of years, naval architects might have found propellers mounted just under the surface, directly behind the keel/skeg to be a little less, um, exposed? Can you imagine trying to navigate kelp or crab pots or coral reefs with fragile ducted fans on underwater stalks as your primary propulsion?

The kicker is that Volitan won the International Design Award for the best transportation vehicle of 2007!!! This abortion is the symbol of everything that is wrong with "sustainable design" : the belief that giant, expensive, overengineered gadgets are the solution to the world's problems. It's clearly dreamed up by an industrial designer with a deep, abiding hatred of everything boat-like about boats...

Sigh... OK... done ranting. For a link to a guy who HAS advanced the art of sustainable boat buidling, check out James Wharram (the guy often credited with the catamaran revival of the 50s and 60s.) Lately he's been doing great work designing boats to revive sail-powered trade routes in the Pacific.

His designs are an elegant blend of high tech, low tech, tribal tech. When you look at his boats: the lines, the simplicity, the ruggedness and yet performance, they're clearly drawn by the hand of a man who's been to sea.

One of the things I've learned my involvement with open source software as well as boats: the best human tools come from thousands of incremental improvements made by generations of average working people working and living with the product, not from ego-driven idiot-savants incented by the marketplace to create mystifying objects of passive aggressive novelty, rather than simple, honest artifacts of enduring utility.

Incidentally, I believe Macha, descended as she is from hardworking channel cutter and sailing lifeboat lineage, is an another example of evolutionary rather than revolutionary design. The builder and previous owner Jay definitely added some cool innovations, but the basic design is pretty darned traditional. In sailing her, and living aboard her, even still when I'm faced with a new situation or a new maintenance/repair task I'll frequently notice some new detail replete with robust elegance, and think "Oh... that's why it work's like that..."

A well designed tool or vehicle should feel like that to own. It fills you with confidence that generations of intelligent people have stood in your shoes, experienced the pickle you're now in, and tried their best to design and build for it... Good, traditional, evolutionary yacht design is a subtle, nonverbal communication from a lineage of seafaring forefathers, quietly whispering reassurance when the sailing gets rough. "Don't worry, this boat can take these conditions." In contrast, when I look at a boat design like the Volitan, (or a Hunter, or a MacGregor 26X), I feel like I know more about boats that their designers. And that frankly scares the hell out of me, because I certainly don't know much!


callsign222 said...

Great post! Talk about diminishing returns of technology!

This type of thinking is exactly replicated in the multitude of "Science" magazines on the racks. I just picked one up that was blaring about the future of oil on the cover. The article carefully avoided the actual issue of Peak Oil until the very end, casually mentioning there's some debate about when it will happen, but no one knows. The filler of the article was just about several technologies that will somehow provide us with adequate "green" replacements. They never mentioned the energy deficits or the actual lack of energy in these substitutes (compared to petroleum). Anyway, what I'm saying is that there wasn't any science in it. Pick up the UK "New Scientist" and they devoted two issues to oil and peak oil, backed up by science and facts. And it wasn't pretty.

This country is scared, barreling to an uncertain future, grasping at straws, unwilling to give up our orgy of consumption and growth, so we lull ourselves to sleep with pseudo-science and news pundits and this abomination of a boat as a nifty techno-solution.

Everything will be ok. Trust us. We have the technology.

Meanwhile the sailor sails on. Right on, brother.

callsign222 said...

Not to inundate you with comments, but have you been following that crazy dude on his schooner that's shooting for 1000 days at sea? He just passed the 800 days mark. That's 800 days of sailing, out of the sight of land, non-stop. At only one point has he interacted with other people, and that was when his girlfriend bailed after getting pregnant.

No supplies, no nothing, just sailing and repairing everything himself with what he's got.

He's a little cooky, but he's the man.

subgenius said...

+1 on the good post count.

Motored (yeah I know - but I just bought the boat and it has an engine! and there was no wind) past Macha today on the way out of Svendsens...Looking pretty.

callsign - thanks for the link!

Ari said...

Thanks for the kind words guys. Subgenius, if you're ever down here in the Estuary and you see us moving around the docks, stop by and say Hi. We'll save a warm beer for you. :-)

- Ari

subgenius said...

Hi Ari,

The hatch was open, but I was on a time crunch - I had to wait a day for a slot on Svendsen's lift.

I should be back up in about 9 days to prep and then sail south, and will try to catch you then.

(Neil on Voy...)

Anonymous said...

Wharram is the way.Google the 1000 days at sea dudes name and see what it says.

Bob Hall said...

Couldn't have said it better man.

PS When are you coming sailing with Eric & me here in Ballard?

kollapsnik said...

Hi Ari,

That thing certainly is an abomination, but let's not go overboard: there is always room for design, reintroducing traditional elements or inventing new ones. I live on and sail an ocean-going, flat-bottom sharpie (traditional) that has chine runners and can sail with the centerboard up (radical!). I am looking for an anchor crab winch because I don't want high-wattage electrics (super-traditional, to the point of probably having to get one made to mech drawings). Enclosed cockpits do work - Jester made ocean crossings with an enclosed cockpit and a "pram hood" for sticking your head out and smelling the wind and such. Design can be good. Volitan isn't.


Ari said...


First of all: Holy Crap! A comment from Orlov. In the immortal words of Wayne and Garth "We are not worthy! We are not worthy!"

Have you seen the site and Jay Fitzgerald book Seasteading? If not, I would encourage you to do so.

There is some nifty convergent evolution going on here; sailboats are being recognized and adopted as a practical and aesthetically wonderful response to the impending peak oil crisis.

I want to blog about this soon, but given the uncertainties that lie ahead, we can't be sure which life choices will be most adaptive. A sailboat guarantees mobility. Will it be better to live in a progressive green town like Portland? Isolated on big island Hawaii or New Zealand? Ensconced in a walkable European city?

Having a well built sailboat may allow one to observe the unfolding crisis and pick an appropriate place to live "just after the nick of time."

Anywyas, your comments are well taken, and thanks again for stopping by!

- Ari

Antonio Dias said...

Design is never decoupled from values. When we react to this Volitan, we react to the values, or what we might call delusions of value behind its raison d'etre. Wharram's craft come out of another value system.

The Globalism/Neo-Bullshite value system tries to maintain its elevation above and outside of values by claiming something intrinsically trumping in its rationale – a game that's long been played by the reactionary forces that pretend to be its enemies. Their hubris shines forth as what smells of death about this craft to someone who senses what's at stake.

Glad to have found your blog!