How to Harness the Wind (Crossing the Wind I)

Sailing is a prime form of technological magic that we take for granted. You stick a boat in the water with a standing sheet of cloth or plastic and expect it to start zooming wherever you like. Pretty miraculous, though. Like flying, it’s not just going fast and having wings, but how the wings are shaped. In the same way, sailboats move because of how the sails are shaped, and how they’re allowed to move.

Phoenician ship
Phoenician ships ruled the Mediterranean 3000 years ago, photo by Jennie Hill

Human cultures have a lot of coastlines, so for eight millennia, those cultures learned how to navigate long distances–without computers, electricity, steam power, sextants, or even nails. The Portugese, Phoenicians, Vikings, and the Chinese all created distinct seafaring dynasties, each in their own turn. As I’m about to start a journey across the Atlantic on a boat, I decided to try to understand exactly how they did it.

If Square, Add Oars

The oldest known ship, the Pessoe canoe in the Netherlands, dates back to 8000 BC. From Easter Island to the fertile crescent to the Inuit, people have been hollowing out a tree or lashing logs together, raft-like, in order to move across the water. Many added a bit of cloth mounted on a stick to move away from the wind, plus some oar power to keep going when the wind was in the wrong direction or nonexistent. Early depictions of the sails in the cradle of civilization near the Mediterranean were square, dating back to Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Vikings slimmed the ships, but added lots of oars. Columbus gets credit for sailing from southern Europe over to the southern mid-Atlantic, but other accounts have Leif Ericson finding the northern North American coast much earlier, and St. Brendan possibly going from Norway to Newfoundland before the first millennium. The Ericson ship model was, in fact, reconstructed in the 1920s and sailed again from Europe, eventually ending up into Duluth, where it has been refurbished and stands in a park today.

Leif Ericson ship reproduction
Leif Ericson ship, sailing to Duluth. Photo by Tom Kasper, 1927

The Vikings didn’t change the basic sail design, but they did add a few other technology advances. Viking ships were narrow and long, with a comparatively shallow base that allowed it to sail in very shallow waters. Ships were symmetrical, which allowed them to be reversed easily in case they needed to back out, for example, if they reached an impenetrable ice sheet. They were light enough to be transported over land as needed, easy to imagine in lands striped with rivers and sandbars. Warships were long to hold lots of warriors, who doubled as oarsmen to gain the speed they needed to mount quick, lethal attacks. But the next big advancement for ships–the one that launched the Age of Discovery in Europe–was the triangular sail.

Maori waka ship with triangular sail, photo at

The Persians and the Maoris Had It

Historians say that the lateen sail launched the Age of Discovery, when the Portugese, Dutch, and Scandinavian traders started going across all the ponds. Of course, the triangular sails might have been in long use along the Nile, in the Indian Ocean, and in Polynesia for centuries, so “invented” is a dubious term. Wherever they came from, once the growing merchant cultures had them, exploring and trading was on. They created the speedy caravel which anyone who ever played Civilization knows quite well.

The Nina with lateen sails. Photo at

Columbus used a core caravel design for both the Nina and the Pinta, using the bigger, partly square-sailed carrack for the Santa Maria. Ships also had, by then, added more of a keel and put a steering rudder in the back. What is it about that triangle version that made it so much more useful for sailing?

Acting as “I” beams, they resist the forces on the sail that try to compress the leech in towards the luff when the sail is sheeted in. This preserves the open leeched airfoil shape and keeps the sail from becoming fuller and more semicircular (rounded leech) as the breeze and the loads increase. A flatter airfoil shape with a straight, open leech keeps the boat upright and reduces weather helm. The more roach you need to support, the greater the compression, and the more important battens become. from

Luffing your Lateen until the Leech

Triangles are where the rubber meets the road, or where the wind hits the fan, so to speak. Of course, as soon as you start trying to understand the Physics of sailing, the terminology goes quickly over your head. This is especially true if you’re a modern sailor trying to understand a modern boat–I got quickly towed under by the leeches and the luffs. The sailors reading this are raising an eyebrows, so forgive me if I get it wrong… the lateen means triangle. The luff is the straight part, attached to the vertical mast, and the leech is the back “round” part.If you’ve ever tried to sail, you probably know that when you want to sail into the wind, you move in a zigzag pattern, at a 45 degree angle. I always thought that tacking simply meant the wind was moving you from the side, but it’s more complicated than that. Yes, my physics son, vectors are involved.

Sailing physics

The Physics of Sailing Photo from

The wind comes it and hits the sail at an angle, so the boat is prompted to move. But if it’s properly held fast, the boat will move at the angle and slightly forward. However, if the wind is strong, the boat would normally just move sideways, except for the keel. A deep keel will face resistance from the water, which prevents the boat from going sideways, and instead it goes forward-ish.

Tall triangle sails

Tall and triangular at the America’s Cup 2013 in the Golden Gate. Photo by Abner Kingman

When the sail is tall, the wind at the bottom is also directed upward and catches as much of the sail that’s there. Plus airfoils shape, that’s spreading air pressure in that complex way that works on planes and more and more vectors, Victor.

Interestingly enough, the Chinese did not use keels. Instead, their boats–the Chinese junks–had flat-bottoms. But their technology was sophisticated for a variety of other reasons.

The Battens–the Chinese, like Aristotle, Seemed to Know Everything

Chinese junks came in a huge variety of sizes, everything from a single sail to move through along the myriad rivers, to multiple sails for trading. Flat bottoms were used, but the Chinese made use of a stern rudder for steering, long before the Europeans did. The rudders acted both to steer and as a keel for moving upwind.

Sails on the Chinese ships were also placed oblique to the wind and curved to take the best advantage of the wind, including directing the wind more effectively from the front one to the those in the back. Chinese sailors also derived ways to create water-tight compartments–bulkheads–which helped with flotation and speed. And they used battens.

Chinese junk

Chinese junk, obligue, battened sails. Photo by brighthub engineering

You probably know the expression “batten down the hatches,” and you probably know that has something to do with securing things. I, foolishly, thought it meant tie down the cargo, but not exactly. A batten a strip of wood or inflexible material. To batten the hatches is to use nailed battens over tarps to cover the hatches to the holds, where cargo or people may be trying to wait out a storm.

Battens are also used on the sails themselves. Today’s sails would have a batten extending from the triangle-part inward, although not necessarily all the way. The batten keeps the material stiff because when you are raising the sail, the extra material will flap around rather hazardously until the sail is all the way up or down. Battening the sail alleviates the problem. Note that the Chinese sails were fully battened, so that raising and lowering them was more akin to Venetian blinds. Overall, the Chinese sails were quick and easy to bring down, or “reef,” as follows:

Naturally curious, I asked the skipper about reefing the junk rig. He had just passed around fresh mugs of hot chocolate, so I expected a brief discourse on the subject. Instead, without saying anything he walked over to the main mast and with one hand released the main halyard just enough to let it slip over the belaying pin, paying out about half of it and then belaying it again. The boat was reefed. He did not put down his mug of hot chocolate… and he did not spill any.

Old Age Crystals and Sunstones

Now, we know how the sails work. Most of us know that they knew where to get to by using the stars and position of the sun. However, the Vikings may have had a different method. After all, quite a bit of the northern climates don’t see the sun for much of the year, and if they don’t see the sun, they also don’t see the stars.

Navigation crystals
Viking crystals may have helped navigation. Photo by Arnien/Wikimedia commons

Recent historians think the Vikings may have spotted the sun by using crystals. Several expeditions have found fairly large partly carved bits of calcite on foundered ships. Speculation is that by using the crystals with very little or diffused light, plus another scientific concept called polarization, to determine what direction the sun is in. But explaining that would require a whole extra blog. I’ll stick with the wind.

We’re off to sail across the Atlantic, then up the west coast of Europe and around the British Isles. Next week: Columbus and the Mayflower–how did that crossing go?

Free Tax Advice (Well, Not Really)

Photo from McClatchy

Sophia Loren and Spiro Agnew have it in common. Al Capone, Leona Helmsley, and Wesley Snipes are also all linked, but in a different way. And Martha Stewart and Lindsey Vonn make the list, even though their situations were completely different. What’s the common thread? Tax problems, a fitting subject for a blog five days before April 15th.

It seemed like a great time to pontificate about tax rules and hand out some free tax advice, for today is the last day I will be helping out with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. As a reminder, this program partners with the IRS and United Way to allow volunteers to file taxes for free for those whose income falls below a threshold. If your income is low, and you didn’t take advantage this year, mark your calendars next February to find out where the nearest VITA site is near you! As I tell clients, your taxes are done for free, which means you get what you pay for. Same with today’s blog. But here are a few tidbits of tax advice, both frivolous and useful.

The 861 Tax Protest Argument

Wesley Snipes tried to use what is called the “861 argument” to avoid paying taxes, which points to section 861 of the IRS code that defines income sources. Snipes and others argued that the IRS code doesn’t explicitly list all possible ways you can earn income, and therefore any income-generating activity not on the list is not taxable. Multiple tax protesters using this logic have been taken to court in the last thirty years, and none have won.

No tax protester has successfully argued that you can legally avoid paying taxes.

Snipes followed the advice of two fraudsters, Tom Clayton and Larkin Rose, who called themselves the American Rights Litigators, and then later renamed their group the Guiding Light of God Ministries. Much later, they were renamed federal prison inmates # 357-551 and #AX7-832. Not only did Snipes refuse to pay millions owed for money made as a film star, but he attempted to amend previous year filings and request millions in refunds. At one point after he was indicted for tax evasion, he tried to enter South Africa on a false passport. (He also wanted his trial venue to be moved out of Florida because Ocala is racist. The judge disagreed.)

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J.S. Bach: Sewing Machine or New Age Streamer?

Salomo, stop playing that [Bach]! You sound like a sewing machine!

CCH Pounder in the movie Bagdad Cafe

Does Bach sound like a sewing machine? Does The Art of the Fugue sound like it was dictated by a blind man? Was Bach so good at counterpoint because he heard arguments in his head all the time, given that he was apparently always arguing with somebody? Does the emotional content reflected in St. Matthew’s Passion or the Prelude from the Cello Suite in D Minor denote the kappelmeister’s relationship to his faith or the fact that half his children died before reaching adulthood?

Argumentative, industrious, myopic Herr Bach, photo at

Sunday was Bach’s 334th birthday. In 1685, when he was born, Louis the Fourteenth was dominating Europe, William & Mary were wresting the crown away from the Stuarts in England, and Protestants were fleeing to the colonies to exchange war and religious persecution for malaria. Music at the time was focused primarily on the rise of the new public art form known as opera. Bach had no interest in opera. Luckily for us.

The Industriousness of Bach

Perhaps he would be surprised to know that all these years later his influence has lasted so long and extended to so many different styles. He wrote over 1000 musical compositions. While many argue that Mozart’s 600 works are more impressive because Mozart only lived to age 32, the precocious Amadeus also started composing ate age five. Bach didn’t really get going until he was in his mid-30s, plus he had a few other things going on, between being court musician here and choir-master there. And then there were all the children.

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Courage is a Muscle

What doesn’t kill us make us stronger

–old adage sung recently by Kelly Clarkson
Wrestling kids from movie Fighting with  my Family
Wrestling teenagers from Fighting with My Family, photo at Rolling Stone

There’s a temptation with sports movies to call them derivative, Rocky knock-offs, as if Rocky invented the concept of striving, training, working past obstacles, and succeeding. All good sports stories—and today’s blog is about two of them—reflect life, which is striving, working past obstacles, building courage, and succeeding. Then struggling again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The key element to well-made movies about athletics isn’t just about the success at the end, but about the development of character by the participants along the way. How they get there is really the story. Two films I recently watched, 2011’s Best Documentary Undefeated and the recently-released Fighting With My Family, both did an exceptional job of demonstrating how this works.

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Rewiring My Brain: Escucha y Repita

Despite five years of German and two years of French in middle school and high school, I retained none of it. I think I am not a “language person,” and I have often envied friends who seem to acquire languages like adding an extra car just because they can. Nevertheless, it’s been on my radar for years to learn Spanish. It is California; we are practically a bi-lingual state. I decided 2019 was the year to give it the full welly. I discovered ways to learn and not to learn, I started exercising parts of my brain that I didn’t know where there, and learned all about el hombre con seis dodos. Español, aquí voy!

Duolingo language app
The Duolingo free language app

How Not to Learn Spanish

This started three years ago when my daughter showed me the free Duolingo app, which purports to teach you a language five minutes a day. Since I enjoy a challenge, most of my focus has been to keep my streak going. (200 days in a row as of today). I have learned a decent amount of vocabulary, particularly about chicken with rice, fish burgers, and wine.

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