Sightlines - December 2015
Proving technology or solving problems?
I was so eager to prove my revolutionary idea for a stepped hull that I dropped out of college at the end of my third year. Instead of completing my degree, I took a job with a local sailboat builder, and began building my 19-foot stepped prototype in my spare time. The boat proved amazing in rough water and much more efficient than a deep-V, and I became obsessed with my invention. I was convinced my new technology would change the boating world.
I was awarded U.S. and foreign patents for my invention, and went about trying to find someone to put it into production. I contacted everyone possible in the boat industry, and was introduced to a group of boating executives at the 1978 Ft. Lauderdale boat show as “the best-known boat designer in America, who has never designed a boat for anyone.” Quite a humbling introduction for a 25-year-old, but that made me realize I might be better off shelving my invention before I got the reputation as a one-idea industry quack. Was I ahead of my time or had I simply solved a problem that no one else cared about?
So, I completely understand the syndrome of falling in love with one’s own technology. The brilliant Dean Kamen teased the world with promises of the most revolutionary invention of all time, and unveiled the Segway: Advanced gyro-technology put to use in a most incredible way ... he solved walking! The deal was, no one else thought walking was a problem in the first place. The Segway is the poster child for technology looking for a problem to solve and missing the mark.
The boating industry is full of what I call “science projects.” That is, the development of boats with a narrow focus on the technology, with no eye towards any practical use. What is most amazing about these projects is often the sheer scale and cost of them and the years of commitment necessary to see them trough to fruition. Otherwise sane people keep plugging away with their blinders on, unable to see the commercial ineptitude of their inventions, because they are so in love with their technology.
Sitting on my desk is a press announcement for the Glider SS18. From what I can tell, she seats five people in a cockpit pod suspended high above its slender 59-foot catamaran hulls. No doubt this thing takes very little power and provides a very smooth ride, but otherwise it looks totally useless. What do you do with it? How do you get in or out of it? Where do you dock it? The only explanation I can think of for its existence is that it is British! The Brits seem to lead the way in wacky boat technology.
The VSV, or Very Slender Vessel, is the brainchild of a British sailboat designer. The very first VSV was built for a yachtsman that lived on the Isle of Man. According to reports, he would commute to the mainland wearing a full wetsuit and goggles, because it could submerge itself through big waves at high speed, soaking everyone on board to the bone. It seems no one was alarmed by this and the inventor managed to sell his design to several navies around the world. The one owned by the U.S. Navy carries her crew in an enclosed chamber with aft facing seats to help absorb the impact as it submerges under each wave. It is known within the Navy as the “coffin” or “barf chamber.” It has been decommissioned.
My office has had its share of clients with “science projects.” We have considered projects ranging from amphibious catamarans to surface-planing submersibles, which flunk any test of reasonableness simply from the standpoint of cost alone. Technology can be hypnotic, making the possible appear reasonable, even when it obviously has no practical outcome. For me, if technology takes on freakish proportions or yields no cargo or accommodation space, and has no perceivable use, I take a pass.
I learned my lesson a long time ago that if you don’t keep your eye on solving a real problem, then no future exists for an invention. We are all guilty of gawking at these freak shows we see coming out of boat design, but I’m not too impressed by technology being paraded around for nothing more than its own sake.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.