Relay Science

Relay: Dead Downwind Faster Than The Wind

A few weeks ago, I came across the description of an extremely inspiring engineering project at Kimball Livingston’s blog (pictures and videos taken from there). Basically, conventional wisdom in wind propulsion is that, whatever the wind is propelling, that object can’t actually go faster than the wind unless it uses up some kind of stored energy (fuel, rowing, etc…). Rick Cavallaro thought otherwise, put his ideas out there for how it might work to go dead downwind, faster than the wind, and was roundly ridiculed by pretty much everyone.

Instead of being disheartened, he put together a team to build the strange propellor-shaped sails that he thought would carry a vehicle faster than the wind. They crafted their land-boat to precise yet hand-made specifications (even using a bicycle wheel!), and set out to test Cavallaro’s crazy theory. Here’s an initially slow-paced video of the attempt:

Ultimately, they clocked the craft at 2.8x the speed of the wind! This is what I would call ridiculously awesome, and a reminder that physics, if we needed a reminder, is really interesting. I also admire the story of the iconoclastic scientist whose theories were at first mocked and then, not simply proved theoretically possible in a mathematical equation or a lab, but tested out on the salt flats with a guy in a helmet sitting in it! I guess the point is that there are plenty of good ideas out there that just haven’t been tried—and that’s something I think I often do need a reminder of.

Check out Livingston’s blog post for a detailed story of what happened. There’s also a Discovery Channel video with interviews, etc…

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

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