Related to MAKE 19, Makeshift: Against the Wind
MakeShift 19: Analysis, Commentary, and Winners
by Lee D. Zlotoff
October 20, 2009
This challenge had you blown away from shore in a sea kayak, and pressed for a solution to get yourself back to terra firma. Many of you thought this was a no-brainer and hardly worth any creative sweat suggesting “all I have to do is rig a sail and tack my way back to the shore.” Sounds simply, right? Yeah, not so simple really. In fact, extremely tricky to pull off at all. But we’ll get back to that in a bit.
For those entrants who rolled up their sleeves for the challenge, there were three basic approaches. The first was to create as much of an anchor as possible from your excess gear to slow your progress out to sea, try and dry your cell phone to call for assistance, create a signaling device out of the reflective mylar emergency blanket, and hope someone loves-and misses-you enough to send out a search and rescue team to pluck you from the briny deep. In all, a fairly reasonable and practical approach, but one that relies on a lot of 'ifs', i.e., if, in fact, anyone would rouse such an effort, if they knew where to start looking, and if you could survive the cold and ocean elements long enough to be found—assuming of course they could find you. So, while doable and perhaps practical, this isn’t exactly a high percentage play, and doesn’t really reflect the MAKE can-do spirit we’ve come to so admire in all of you.
The second option many of you went for was to construct a kite out of the emergency blanket or outer-wear and use that to let the wind pull you back to shore. This looks and sounds good on paper but, while it passes the test for clever thinking, the consensus among our experts-- (oh yeah, we called in some big guns to help us judge this challenge)-was that this simply would not work. Effective parasailing kites require not only an air bladder at the leading edge to help maintain the right airfoil shape, but a number of elaborate control lines. Without those elements—which would be virtually impossible to construct in this scenario, any kite you could make would either end up being blown into the water or, at best, act as a spinnaker sail and just pull you in the direction of the wind and-contrary to its intended purpose—further out to sea. Granted, assuming the kite would fly it might help attract potential rescuers, but considering how far adrift this could take you, that’s a very risky gamble. So, though a creative approach, the kite option is not really likely to improve your situation or ensure your survival.
That brings us to the last-and most popular-solution, namely, construct a sail of some sort out of the paddles and emergency blanket and sail your way back to land. And since-as is often the case with these challenges-the devil is in the details, here’s where the apparently simple starts to get complicated. Because converting your kayak into even a passable sailboat, though feasible, is not as straightforward as it seems. Though it wasn’t specified in the challenge, since most sea going kayaks have small, controllable rudders, we assumed you even had a rudder in place to assist you. But to be effective-especially going windward or 'upwind'-- a sailboat requires more than just a sail and a rudder.
To wit, a sailboat can make its way upwind by tacking across the wind direction and pulling the sail in tight to form an airfoil. When sails are 'close-hauled' this way, the wind pressure on the sail tends to make the boat roll, a force which is counteracted by the weight of a keel or daggerboard, and people sitting on the rail. As with your kayak, the wind also pushes the boat downwind or 'leeway', the force of which is also counteracted by the keel. Without a keel or daggerboard-or, if rigged on the sides, "leeboards"-- a small boat attempting to sail windward would just get blown downwind. So those of you who concocted makeshift keels or leeboards should congratulate yourselves because that was a big-and not so evident-key to tackling this challenge. Now it’s true that maintaining a constant relationship between the set of the sail and the direction of the wind is critical to keeping an effective airfoil with your sail-and hence being able to tack upwind. And, given the sails most of you sketched or described, even that would be difficult to manage under the circumstances. But we thought that the few of you who correctly ascertained the key elements needed to convert your kayak into a sailboat, would at least have a fighting chance of working your way home, against the wind as it were.
So, aside from confronting the physics of actual sailing, perhaps the real lesson here is not to doze off in a kayak, regardless of where you are. But, as always, we appreciate your jumping in to tackle the challenge, and look forward to testing your wits and wisdom with even slyer conundrums as we round the corner of this first decade of the new century.
And, I know I speak for everyone here at Make as we toot our fog horns to acknowledge the winners of this challenge below, and wish all of you nothing but smooth sailing in the coming new year!
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