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One Man’s Quest to Outrace Wind

posted Mar 2, 2011, 4:43 AM by Cesar Harada
Via Thom Ruhe
Photo:  Lucas Foglia

Rick Cavallaro, a hardware and software engineer, ignited an online flame war with his proposal for a Rube Goldberg wind-powered vehicle.
Photo: Lucas Foglia

There’s no doubt that a boat (dirt or otherwise) can go faster than the wind. That’s part of the magic of sailing: By running at an angle to take advantage of crosswind effects, a boat can outpace wind speed. But directly downwind? Impossible. In a best-case scenario, a sailing vessel headed directly downwind will move at the speed of the breeze that’s pushing it.

The problem with downwind sailing is that from the perspective of the craft, once it reaches wind speed there is no more wind. And if there is one thing every sailor knows, it’s that “you can’t power through zero wind,” as Jenkins says. Not only would the sailing craft have to somehow pull ahead of the wind that’s pushing it, but from the perspective of the sailors on board, it would face what feels like a headwind pushing it back. In sailing, zero wind—real or apparent—is considered an absolute barrier, like the speed of light in physics.

Yet Cavallaro claims that Blackbird can break this barrier. Not only that, he says, it will likely go downwind twice as fast as the wind. The boast is made all the more outlandish by the fact that Blackbirddoesn’t have anything that looks even remotely like a sail.