Friday, May 02, 2008

Kite Boat Sails to Hawaii

It was a muggy Sunday morning on Maui's western tip. The gleaming Pacific lapped at ruins of the old pier at Mala Wharf. A deceptively quiet morning, there was no blaring indicator that a green-movement milestone was about to be achieved.

Like any morning on the island, day trippers poised at boat launches, backing their boats into the water, tying and untying knots, and dusting off their sea legs. Many likely groaned at the dent fuel would put into their wallets.

But not Dan Tracy and crew, who were gearing up to sail from Maui to Molokai in a kite-powered, 24-foot Corsair trimaran. While Tracy and crew have taken the boat out before — and even made the news for catching a 20-pound ono while fishing from the boat — this was the first inter-island voyage for the unique vessel. With the water at Mala Wharf "perfectly calm," conditions looked ideal.

The kite apparatus, which Maine native and lifelong sailor/fisherman Tracy designed and built, looks absolutely nothing like any watercraft outside the imagination.

"This is the most complicated, sophisticated apparatus outside of 'Waterworld' that you'll see," said crewmember Brian Thomas, who has been sailing since before he was born (his mother having been an avid sailor), as he helped prepare the kite for its unprecedented voyage.

There is no mast. Instead, an elaborate array of ropes, pulleys, and a giant hand-cranked winch sits atop an elevated area of the boat. This is how the 18-square-foot kite is controlled. Everything, including, of course, a chair for the driver, is attached to a rotating platform that allows the driver to harness the wind from any direction.

An outboard engine helps the boat into and out of harbors and assists the kite in times of low wind. Other than that, Tracy's boat relies solely on wind.

The kite's high elevation allows it to catch stronger, steadier wind than a conventional sail, which makes for quicker travel time.

Tacking across the wind of the Pailolo Channel — a waterway that is known to be rough — Sunday morning, the boat reached a top speed of more than 11 knots. The kite pulled the boat slightly up out of the water, easing the blow of the roughest chop. Tracy sat at the wheel as the other crewmembers — Thomas and Maui Community College Sustainability Club President Chris Taylor — took turns working other parts of the vessel. The crew and passengers glided over high swells with ease, talking story and catching sea spray. Sharing a Molokai papaya, they attempted pirate jokes and talked politics.

The crew made it to Molokai's East End in less than three hours' time before dropping off a passenger and heading back to Maui.

Hopping out of the boat, Tracy's elation was apparent as his feet touched Molokai sand.

Roundtrip, Tracy, said, the boat used a total of three gallons of gas; less than half of what it would normally take.

Of course, this isn't it for the Tracy's kite sail. There are other courses to chart, and implements to develop, he says, if he is to take this technology worldwide.

German company Skysails is also currently looking into using a similar technology to power cargo vessels and super-yachts.

In the beginning, all Tracy wanted was "a clearer deck for running a fishing boat" than a standard catamaran could offer. Now his idea has caught the eye of green-thinking individuals and corporations worldwide.

Tracy's kite boat might help make the oil slick rainbows that strangle the surface of stagnant waterways a thing of the past. It may change the sound and smell of a summer day.

As for a name for his boat, Tracy is waiting for the right one, but it will definitely be in Hawaiian.

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