The Human Condition:

Fantasy as Public Policy – May 18, 2014

AC72 from Team New Zealand

The San Francisco Chronicle, our hometown newspaper, recently ran a front-page story1 about a $355,000 grant awarded by “pollution regulators” to research installing rigid, carbon-fiber sails on the ferries that ply San Francisco Bay to supplement their diesel engines. The idea was supposedly inspired by the success of the America’s Cup catamarans last year: if the AC72s can get up to 55 mph in the Bay winds, then whoo-hoo! Why not a ferryboat carrying hundreds of people?

I guess sailors and scientists can do any experiments they want, and regulators can spend taxpayer money any way they choose. But this is fantasy as public policy, on the shallow order of “Wouldn’t it be nice if …?” or “Ooo, there’s an idea!”

For the record—because for about two weeks I watched the America’s Cup finals almost every day—the AC72s are not great boats. They attain their marvelous speeds by being extremely light, fragile, and ungainly craft. They have hulls 72 feet long and 46 feet wide that weigh just 13,000 pounds, six and a half tons—which is ridiculously light for a boat that size. They have masts and sails 130 feet tall. Their cargo capacity is a crew of 11 brawny men, all of whom work damn hard to keep the boat in proper trim and upright. They sail in a narrow window of the wind—between 5 and 20-25 knots, depending on the month—which means they do really well in light winds but fold over and break in gusts of about 30 mph. Gusts are not all that uncommon on the Bay.

The AC72s are designed to do one thing very well: sail up and down the San Francisco waterfront on late-summer afternoons at dizzyingly fast speeds for the excitement of large crowds. That waterfront is beautifully placed along a wind-tunnel–like channel shaped by the northern end of the San Francisco Peninsula and the Marin Headlands, which produces steady west-to-east winds of the specified velocity over relatively flat water. And still, too many of the races in the final match had to be called off when the winds were too strong.2

Suggesting this kind of sailboat, or any aspect or part of it, as a model for public transportation is like trying to turn a light and elegant two-person sailplane—a “glider” to most people—into a jumbo jet for transcontinental service. Don’t hold your breath.

Ferries are already a form of public transport. Burning carbon fuels to move hundreds of people across the Bay—rather than have them drive across the bridges—is considered good, green policy. Trying to reduce their carbon footprint even further by adding sails is fancifully misdirected.

I have sailed on the Bay. It’s great fun. You get those light winds in many places, which the AC72s would love, but they leave a heavier boat rolling and flapping. In the lee of San Francisco itself, immediately south of the Bay Bridge, which is on the main route of the Alameda ferries, there’s a dead zone you just have to waddle and drift through. The same goes for the lee of Angel Island, where the Larkspur and Vallejo ferries travel. But then, as you come out of the city’s wind shadow and cross toward Angela Island, you experience what we used to call “the slot.” This is the raceway wind that the America’s cup boats exploited. In a helluva hurry, you can go from drifting along to canting over on your beam-ends with your mast at a 45-degree angle pointing off toward Berkeley.3

The Bay is a challenging place to sail, not all that dangerous, but not like a lake, either. It is not one kind of place with a steady wind and no excitement. And on more days than you’d think—especially in summer, when the Central Valley heats up and draws a steady, onshore breeze—you can get small-craft warnings at the Gate and in the North Bay. Then it may not even be safe to drive on the Bay Bridge or the Richmond-San Rafael because of crosswinds. And some days—especially in May and October, when the Bay Area gets its only hot, still days—the wind does not blow at all and the flags hang limp.

With computers, we can design more efficient sails, just as we can design more efficient windmills. But we’re still faced with the wind as a variable and sometimes missing resource. To quote Captain Jack Aubrey in the Master and Commander movie: “I can harness the wind but I ain’t its goddamn creator.”

Fossil-fueled engines are a technological advancement, because they can take you safely and reliably in any direction, regardless of where and whether the wind’s blowing. To supplement them with a sail would be to take us back to the 1850s, when scows traveled up and down the Bay hauling lumber and grain. To supplement them—for the sake of their carbon footprint—with a hundred-foot-tall, fixed and rigid, carbon-fiber sail that you can’t take down in a blow and that will act as an air brake in a calm … would be lunacy.

But it’s such a lovely idea!

1. The Chronicle story is behind a subscription pay wall, but the same article is available for free at the newspaper’s online doppelganger,

2. If the races had been held outside the Bay, out on the Pacific Ocean, where the real rollers start, the AC72s would have been floating high-tech, carbon-fiber scraps before they even reached the starting line.

3. Once I was at the helm of my brother’s 32-foot Pearson sloop and he had gone below to fix lunch. Then we entered the slot. It’s sobering to have an object as big as a mobile home and weighing five tons lie down like that. Yes, it has a big lead-weighted keel that keeps it from rolling right over, but the yowl and crash of crockery from the sandwich-makings below is still frightening.