Last weekend being my last before a long string of kite events- Berck, Valencia, Cervia- I took the replica 1886 Benz Patent Motoren Wagen which is in my care away for a weekend to a traction engine rally (called steam tractors in the U.S.) .
Artifacts of the industrial revolution, traction engines were developed in England during the middle 1800’s and ruled the roads and fields through to the early 1900’s. They are huge (10 tonne and more) steam powered lumbering behemoths that attract a single-minded band of enthusiasts in many countries, but especially in England, naturally. There were 80 traction engines at this event, and 60 visiting enthusiasts from England, only one of whom had actually bought his engine with him- a showman’s Burrel revelling in the name Quo Vadis worth around $2 mill or more. Some of the other English visitors, those who make a regular practice of coming south for their winter, own engines here to use and enjoy. Not a cheap hobby!
It all makes kite travelling seem easy, and our petty excess baggage problems trivial in the extreme.
And, it was generous of them to allow me to scoot around their giant wheels in the little 3 wheel Benz, especially as this car , the first ever, was in large measure responsible for the rise of the internal combustion engine powered automotive age and the demise of their kind.
On the Saturday evening there was of course a big dinner and general knees up, complete with speeches and band. There I was sitting between two luminaries of the steam scene, who politely enquired as to who I was and what I did. Telling them that I was a kite flier elicited no discernable response- but when I mentioned that Hughie Rainey, a well known founder of the traction engine preservation movement in NZ, had been my great uncle, I was immediately introduced to everyone, taken into the fold and plied with drinks. Put me in my place that did!
A great night- which finished with participants in similar state to after match functions in the kite world, and at a roughly similar time as far as I can recall. The final goodnight’s- er, -morning’s- were considerably noisier though- on account of the steam whistles.
Now that there probably aren’t too many readers still engaged here, what I really set out to say in this month’s newsletter goes back of course to the boring old subject of kitesailing:
I’m sure that kites will work for yachts- and probably quite soon now- but I don’t believe that kites will work for commercial shipping, in any mainstream role.
It’s not just that I can’t currently see how it will be possible to make kites big enough.
This is not a trivial problem though as they’d have to be in the range of 5,000 sq.m or more to be useful.
The largest high performance kites as of now are just 1/50th of this size; Don Montague’s 100sq.m LEI’s- which he successfully applies to 10m and bigger catamarans.- though even he will admit that they’re a handful and not for the faint hearted.
But low performance kites of the single skin soft type have been made up to at least 450sq.m already I believe- and could certainly be much bigger before weight or strength barriers become limiting.
Unfortunately, low performance kites are only useful for downwind courses- which immediately makes kite powered sailing or kite assisted sailing impossible for half of all days on average.
More unfortunately, even if very large high performance kites are achievable, the superstructures of ships large enough to be commercially viable are so massive that their aerodynamic drag (side profiles above the water of 2500 sq.m and more) precludes upwind sailing. An answer to this could be to develop special semi-submersible freighters, container ships and tankers to enable kite power- but this seems unlikely to happen, except maybe for tankers- but this is a VERY big maybe indeed.
Then there’s the scheduling problem: The world manufacturing and distribution system is increasingly based on lean inventories and just-in-time deliveries which require fast shipping times and fixed timetables. I can’t see this changing to accommodate the vagaries of wind power (more than doubling trip times) unless oil becomes not just ridiculously expensive, but unavailable- and this is not going to happen in the foreseeable future given all the alternative to fossil oil (tar sands, shale oil, coal to oil, bio oil) that are achievable at $50/ barrel and under.
This leaves the only major remaining niche for kites in commercial shipping as kite assistance to save fuel on those days when the wind is both strong enough and in the right direction.
The bulk of the world’s shipping cuts the seaways at 20kn or so now, so wind to be useable for kite assisted passages will have to be more than this assuming even that kites can generate useful pull for a ship moving at something approaching true wind speed on a useful range of courses- and not even recreational kite boats using high performance kites can yet manage to average anything approaching wind speed over a range of courses and wind speeds. And, wind speed will also have to be less than some safe upper limit for kite flying:- 40kn?
This is where I have to admit to a personal bias; After 30 something years flying kites as a job, all over the world, and a fair amount of sailing, I just don’t believe that the wind along the worlds major shipping routes is between 20kn and 40kn and in a useful direction for more than a tiny fraction of the time.
Why would ship operators bother having kites and all their rigging, plus staff and systems to get some assistance for their main engines just 10% of the time?
To me, kites for commercial shipping just doesn’t add up.
Except for one way trips in the trade winds at suitable times of the year- an almost vanishingly small percentage of ship days- but maybe, at a big stretch, still significant enough to be a viable niche for kites.
And, except that if interests associated with commercial shipping can be persuaded to push some money towards kite research and development, even if it’s from their desire to be seen to be green rather than any economic rationale, lots of interesting things that will advance the world of kite traction in general are sure to be discovered.
This would be a good thing, even if the declared goal proves to be impractical
It’s a bit of a moral dilemma really, which is why I’m saying all this rather quietly.
Meanwhile, I’m working on the development of the radio controlled single line Arc kite, aimed at yacht applications, that was described last month- getting good progress too.
Ashburton,1 April ‘06
This month we have something VERY special to announce:
After many years of design development and testing we finally have a compression bag for kites that not only gets smaller when laced, but get proportionally lighter as well!
We’re so pleased to have this at last- and as airlines become tougher on overweight, it’s only just in time.
PS; I wonder whether this principle can eventually be developed far enough to work with traction engines?