In a comment on my last post, the Lord God spake unto me and commandeth that I write about sailing.
I guess there is a chance it wasn't actually the Lord God who left the comment, but if you were me, would you risk it? Not me, I'm writing about sailing.
Which is just as well, because I've had one of those epiphanic moments after reading a number of seemingly unrelated blog posts over the past few weeks (I didn't think epiphanic was a word, either, but it is - I checked).
I'm going to play James Burke here and try to find a common thread in those posts. The only problem with James Burke, though, is that he takes forever to make his point. And that may be the only thing I have in common with him. To help make this easier, there's an intermission half-way through.
Here are the disparate posts:
- Tillerman reviews a book about the possibility of gas eventually costing $20/gallon
- Some guy named Larry spends more money than anyone else in history just to win a sailboat race in a boat that is now useless to anyone (various posts).
- Frogma shows us something that looks like a bunch of popsicle sticks but was actually used by some very smart guys to navigate the Pacific Ocean hundreds of years ago.
- JP visits the British National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England and makes this wistful comment:
"...Maybe the day will come when sail will return, when using nothing and polluting nothing ... will once again be worth something..."
- and finally, Doryman has been posting for a while now about a wonderful wooden boat under construction at an avant garde furniture works in Italy. An ecology activist plans to sail (and row) the completed boat 3000 miles through Europe's rivers to draw attention to the potential for sustainable, non-polluting means of long-distance travel.
Okay, here's my little James Burke experiment.
We've all just witnessed the, um, 'spectacle' of possibly the most bizarre America's Cup in history. While most of us were blown away by the sight of these impossibly huge boats going impossibly fast, there was also something a little too weird about it all.
Yes, there was the unease about the bitterness of the legal wrangling. There was the distaste about Ellison sidestepping all other potential contenders. There was the fretting about whether the 'image' of the cup had been hopelessly tarnished. But I think there was something more disturbing than all of that.
Somehow, Larry and Ernesto had just gone too far. The boats were too big and too expensive - to me, they were more than a little grotesque. Besides being possibly the worst boats ever built for the normally delicate pas de deux of match racing, they were also impossibly extravagant for our times. While there may have been a majesty to the huge J-Boats of the 1930's that only the wealthiest yachtsmen of that era could afford, these boats seemed caricatures of those. Today, it's getting harder and harder to cheer on such gross examples of conspicuous over-consumption.
As a planet, we're starting to run out. To run dry. The very earth itself is showing the strains of our excesses in ways we can no longer ignore. Shouldn't the wealthiest among us be leading the charge for conserving resources and leaving a small footprint?
I'm much more impressed with what Giacomo De Stefano and his team of artisan shipwrights are doing than with anything Larry Ellison's done lately. Somewhat reminiscent of those Polynesian navigators in Frogma's post, Giacomo is providing a modern example of how simple, non-polluting materials can provide durable long-distance transportation - something that will become a lot more important to us as the cost of fossil fuels continues to go through the roof. He also suggests that waterways, which were our principle arteries of commerce for thousands of years, may be an important key to solving the huge problems looming on our highways and airways.
So where am I going with all of this? Maybe, we should have some popcorn first.
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We all know about what's happening to the price of gas and how that must eventually affect the kinds of cars we will be driving, or lead many of us to use trains and bicycles a lot more than before.
But there's less discussion about what this will mean for commercial aviation. Airliners typically burn 1000 - 3000 gallons per hour and there are something like 50,000 scheduled flights worldwide every day, a consumption rate that is only helping to drive the cost of fuel up. Even if these numbers aren't terribly accurate, the point is that sooner or later, commercial flights will get too expensive for ordinary people to afford. Maybe not tomorrow or even in ten years, but eventually, it's inevitable. What then?
How will we get across oceans when our beloved airliners are no longer an option for most of us?
There was some talk a few years back about reviving airships for both hauling freight and passengers over long distances. Laugh if you like, but the numbers were compelling. Modern airships could cover long hauls using a fraction of the fuel of an airliner and at speeds that would get you from New York to London in about a day and a half - in cabins something like those on a cruise ship. The numbers didn't quite make this a practical alternative ten years ago (when fuel was aboout $2/gallon in the US), but that could very well change when fuel reaches $20/gallon.
Ah, but a day and a half to cross the Atlantic, you say. Who would put up with that? Won't we always demand the fastest transport available?
Does anyone remember the Concorde? Forty years ago, our technology was advanced enough to build a workable airliner that was two hours quicker to London than a 747. But the numbers just didn't add up. As fuel got more expensive, not enough could afford the faster alternative to keep it flying. Was the Concorde the handwriting on the wall of our future?
If airliners will be too expensive and airships maybe a bit too wonky, can you think of another way passengers might cross an ocean using very little fuel?
How about something like this:
Okay, these are expensive luxury cruise ships that probably would cost as much to book as a seat on a 747 burning $20/gallon fuel. But these were the only example photos I could find. Think of them as a proof of concept.
Suppose modern construction techniques were applied to build something more practical, utilitarian, efficient - and faster? Hmmm...
Were Frogma's ancient navigators pointing the way to our future?
Are the wooden boatbuilders in Italy more than just idle dreamers?
Is there prophecy in JP's comment?
And, ironically, was there something useful and practical after all in those preposterous boats at Valencia? Will carbon fiber multihulls and high-tech solid wing sails be the technology we'll need for long-distance travel when the pump finally runs dry?
I can't help but think that, in the long curve of human history, our love affair with petrochemicals will one day be seen as a curious blip. Will we eventually be crossing oceans again the way we did for centuries - in big boats with sails on top?
What do you think?