The Golden Age of HPV

No, I don’t mean human papilloma virus.  Human-powered vehicles.

From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, American and European engineering schools buzzed with activity in self-powered craft. Most famously, a pedal-powered airplane crossed the English Channel.

MIT was at the center of this movement, instrumental in the world’s fastest self-powered vehicles on both land and sea.

Their 1987 land record, which still stands as the fastest non-recumbent bicycle, was set on a 1987 Moulton AM7 with MIT-designed fairing, achieving over 51 mph over level ground.  I’ll write on this in more detail soon, as I happen to own that exact model of bike:  a 1987 Moulton AM7 (with my slower legs and Caltech-designed partial fairing, mine tops out at under 30mph). Recumbent bikes are faster, and new records continue to be set, such as this one in 2008, at over 80mph.

MIT’s sea record was set on the Decavitator, a pedal-powered hydrofoil that achieved 18.5 mph in 1991.  To the best of my knowledge, this record is unbroken by any human-powered boat.  This history of human-powered hydrofoils displays recent 100-meter race times in the 14mph range.

Here is the Decavitator in action, back in 1991.


Hydrofoil Kayak

One relatively unexplored direction in human-powered boats is the hydrofoil, in which the hull rides atop aircraft-style wings beneath the water.  Above a certain speed, the entire hull is lifted above the water, reducing drag to almost nothing, and permitting very high speed.  Foilkayak created the Flyak around this idea.


The magic of the right tools

Previous posts mention the problems with epic crossings in sport kayaks, instead of purpose-built craft.  It’s a special case of the general principle of specialized tools:  extreme tool specialization vastly and magically increases productivity and effectiveness.

There is likely room for improvement in kayaks, because current designs have been derived over several decades from thousand-year-old Inuit Greenland-style kayaks, rather than designed from scratch.  Not to say the Inuit craft were bad — on the contrary, they are almost perfect, a central reason for Inuit success.  But they are perfect for completely different conditions:  ice, 30-degree water (yes, seawater can go that low without freezing), and pilots that did not know how to swim (easy exit is not necessary if a capsize results in drowning anyway).

One big improvement of the last 20 years is the fundamental change in whitewater kayak designs.  A generation ago, they used a variant of the basic Inuit layout:  long, narrow, and pointy.  Today’s whitewater boats are short and blunt, better designed for their functional requirements:  quick turns, immunity to snags, etc.

Expedition 360 is interesting not just because it successfully crossed oceans, but because it took a fundamentally different design direction in a kayak-shaped boat:  closed cabin, tandem bicycle drivetrain, solar and wind generators, etc.  (British engineers are wonderful at open-ended mechanical design.  Truly world-beating.  Sometime I’ll post a dozen examples to illustrate.)

Most design simply copies what went before, because it’s efficient to use a tested design as a starting point.  But it’s not optimal.  

There is room for a new reference design for long-distance self-powered personal watercraft.  Properly designed, it should increase the crossing range for a modestly skilled kayaker from 10 miles up to, say, 40 miles.  It would look something like this:

  • Powered with the legs, which are far stronger than the arms.  
  • Fits easily atop a passenger car.  
  • Scalable construction methods, e.g. rotomolding or carbon fiber.
  • Very stable (outriggers?), yet easily righted in a rollover.
  • Very narrow (low resistance).
  • Very long (high hull speed).
  • Easily carry one person and 100kg of supplies.

Such a craft is seemingly feasible, and would permit people of modest athletic ability and judgment to survive solo trips such as the following:

  • Miami to the Bahamas.
  • Los Angeles to any of the Channel Islands.
  • Vancouver to Victoria via intermediate islands.
  • Key West to Havana (ah, someday…).

Time to refit the garage for boat prototyping.

Tasmanian Devils

To the best of my knowledge, no one has kayaked solo across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand. Surprising, as it’s only a few hundred miles — Hans Lindemann kayaked across the Atlantic Ocean in 1956, a seemingly harder feat, but then he had a small sail.  

Maybe the Tasman is rougher water?  This guy died trying in 2007, apparently drowning within sight of his destination.  This duo made it in 2008, but sadly use their website to overtly pitch their motivational speaking circuit.  Still no solo crossing that I know of.

The 2007 solo crossing was dangerous because it sought to use a sport kayak in a way that was never intended.  That’s a failure to control a controllable risk.  By contrast, the duo made it in a purpose-built craft.

The big oceanic crossings of the 20th century were made in stouter kayaks, most notably the Klepper Faltboote, the sworn favorite of both Lindemann and navy frogmen everywhere.

Fall off chair, lose game

Some risks are controllable.  Some aren’t.  The distinction is life-and-death important, and also governs what you find fun.  Some people deliberately seek out uncontrollable risks (gambling mentality).  Others seek control.

First, a bit about uncontrollable risk.

As kids, my brother and some local kids and I would make our own board games.  You rolled the dice, and moved around a homemade oval track of squares, each containing a good or bad result.

By far the most memorable board game square was created by my brother’s friend Robert McNaughton (who later played the older brother in Spielberg’s E.T.:  the Extraterrestrial).  The square read simply, “Fall off chair, lose game.”  Roll the dice, and one random possibility is to lose the whole game.  As kids, we found this the funniest thing ever conceived.  Irrelevant event (fall off chair), catastrophic outcome (lose game).  Ha ha.

This perfectly captures the idea of uncontrollable risk:  no way to reduce risk, except not to play.

A good example is skydiving.  Don’t get me wrong — skydiving is very safe.  My point is that, aside from some basics (pack your chute, exit the plane, extend your limbs), there is nothing you can do to prevent a fatality.  It’s out of your hands.

Contrast this with motorcycling.  Now, motorcycling is absolutely not safe.  The fatality risk per mile is 10 to 20 times higher than driving.  Vastly riskier than skydiving.  But there is research on the subject, from which you can derive a roughly prioritized list of things to reduce the statistical risk of motorcycling death.  In order:

  1. Don’t drink and ride.  Not one drop.
  2. ABS brakes.
  3. Wide, brightly colored fairing (i.e. touring bikes).
  4. Leave the high beam on.
  5. Avoid heavy traffic and especially busy intersections.
  6. DOT-approved helmet.

Based on the amusingly named Hurt Report analysis of motorcycle crashes (named for researcher H.H. Hurt), I conclude these cut your risk by over 70% — still triple the risk of driving, but much improved.

Following these principles, I rode over 50,000 miles through the US and Canada before hanging up my boots and helmet.  No accidents, no laydowns, no injuries.  Maybe I was lucky, but the research suggests it was more than that.

For some people, such as compulsive gamblers, uncontrollable uncertainty is irresistibly exciting.  For them, gambling is fun BECAUSE of the risk of fall-off-chair-lose-game.

For others — airplane pilots, kayakers, transoceanic sailors, et al — there is no fun in uncontrollable risk.  Instead, the fun is in out-thinking the risks, learning the skills, planning for emergencies.  This is part of the essence of greensporten.

Pedaling to Hawaii

Two underemployed gents calling themselves Expedition 360 pedaled their kayak-like homebuilt boat across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the mid-1990s.  Here are photos of their crossing from Monterey, California to Hilo, Hawaii.  Yes, they pedaled across the Pacific Ocean.

Interesting combination of wind and solar generators for onboard power.

Enforced Minimalism

For once, a mass market fad that anyone can love:  perhaps because of the economic travails, everyone is suddenly talking about personal minimalism, or the art of living simply.  (Example.)  But how to start?

Here is a simple personal experiment to teach yourself how little you need:  go bicycle touring through the mountains, unsupported.

Years ago, I pedaled east out of southern California with two sets of panniers (luggage bags mounted to front and rear wheel forks), a handlebar bag, a tent and other gear strapped over the rear panniers.  

On Day 3, I lifted every last pound 5000 vertical feet from Ramona to Julian

Just as a starving man thinks of nothing but food, a heavily loaded bicyclist in the mountains thinks of nothing but lightening the load.  Next morning at the Julian post office, the slimming began.

By the time I arrived in Florida, I had only front panniers — no rear bags, no bar bag, no tent.  Excluding the bike itself, weight was down over 60%.

What don’t you need?  Spares of all types.  Forget spare tubes — carry a patch kit.  In certain areas of New Mexico, you cannot possibly carry enough tubes for the number of flats you’ll get.  Forget spare clothes — that second pair of socks feels pretty silly as you’re grinding up a 7% grade.

Doesn’t unpreparedness increase danger?  Actually, it’s the opposite (and interestingly analogous to the benefits of avoiding obesity).  If you’re only carrying 20 pounds of gear, you have the flexibility to respond to environmental extremes — for example, by carrying 30 pounds of extra water through west Texas, where towns are 100 miles apart.  An unloaded bike can stop faster, avoid dangerous traffic better.  It is more stable on the downhills, less likely to injure your knees on the uphills, suffers fewer flats, etc.

If you try a ride like this, and avoid distractions like phones and iPods, you will learn useful things.

Transcontinental biking for beginners

Go on a personal odyssey, and amaze and impress your friends without taking any real risk:  bicycle solo across Europe, North America or other large land mass.

This is easier than it looks.  Unlike a marathon, kayak crossing or other iconic physical achievement, a person of healthy weight and minimal physical conditioning need not train or learn special skills.  Just start pedaling.  Don’t worry about distance.  I guarantee you’ll be in shape in a few weeks.

You don’t need an expensive bike.  I’m partial to 1980’s-era touring bikes, because they are indestructible, last forever, and cost under a hundred bucks in good condition.  But anything with at least 32c width tires will do.  

You don’t need expensive equipment.  Install front panniers, loaded with food and a single change of clothes, and start pedaling.  Bring a cheap netbook, and spend at least a few evenings at wifi-enabled motels, so you can google questions as you think of them.  You will discover quickly what you need, and, more often, what you don’t.

When I bicycled from California to Florida years ago (4500km), I constantly encountered middle-aged men who said wistfully, “I wish I had done something like this.”  My answer was always the same.  Nearly anyone can afford it, and nearly anyone is physically capable.

You can do it.  Just start.

Kayak Crossings

Sea kayaking is usually a dry sport — surprising, considering that you sit about 15cm below the waterline, elbows about 15cm above.

Not so with serious open-water crossings.  For example, Duane Strosaker has kayaked to nearly every island off southern California.  His adventures include remote San Clemente Island, more than 50 miles offshore.  SCI is a naval base, off limits to visitors, so this guy made a one-day round trip of about 45 miles from Catalina Island.  More impressive is his trip to Santa Barbara Island, a tiny speck of rock 40 miles from anywhere, leaving no margin for navigational error.

This far out, it is common for southern California kayakers to encounter migrating blue whales.


It has long bugged me that there are few information sources for what I call “green sports.”  By this I mean not just environmental friendliness, but physical activity with the following qualities:

  1. Powered by human or renewable energy.
  2. Aesthetics, exploration and adventure — not “winning.”
  3. Controllable risks.
  4. Minimalism, punctuated by cool specialized gadgetry.

Examples of such weirdsporten include sea kayaking, mountain bike touring, sailboat cruising, etc.  Warning to enviro-fundamentalists:  I gleefully catch and eat fish, though I do stick to abundant varieties.

Game on.