Issue 11.3: June/July 2008

One Sheet to the Wind

story by Kate Bradshaw
photo by Dan Rayburn


It’s impossibly early on a Sunday morning. Dan Tracy and his crew have just pulled into the parking lot of Maui’s Mala Wharf to set out on a historic journey. Today, they are taking his as-yet-unnamed 24-foot Corsair trimaran to Moloka‘i for its first inter-island voyage. But they’re not sailing it; they’re kiting it.

They ease the one-of-a-kind vessel into the water. In place of a mast, an array of ropes, pulleys and a giant wheel sits atop a rotating platform, allowing the pilot to steer a massive kite attached to the boat by a 100-foot line. The long line means the kite can catch higher, steadier wind than sails. Tracy, a Maine native, had been looking for a greener way to sail and a clearer fishing deck. He had no luck finding such a rig, so in 2004 he did what any disgruntled angler would do: He designed and built it himself. “This is the most complicated, sophisticated apparatus outside of Waterworld that you’ll see,” crew member Brian Thomas says.

With rain clouds at their backs, they set out for the Friendly Isle. Tacking cross-wind through the swells of the oft-treacherous Pailolo Channel, the boat reaches speeds of over 11 knots. The kite pulls it slightly up out of the water, easing the blows of the roughest chop. The crew makes it to Molokai’s east end—a distance of 16 miles—in less than three hours. On engines alone it would have taken four. A family of curious Molokaians watches as they pull in and dismantle the kite. Round-trip, Tracy says, the boat uses a mere 3 gallons of gas, less than half of what the boat burns when it makes the trip sans kite.

The German company SkySails is using a similar technology on commercial shipping vessels. In January, a kite-propelled cargo vessel began its maiden voyage from Germany to Venezuela. It’s estimated the 160-square-meter kite will curb the vessel’s fuel consumption by 20 percent. Since Hawai‘i aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, kite propulsion, says Tracy, could be a part of the solution. He plans on sailing to O‘ahu mid-2008, followed eventually by a trip to the Mainland in the coming years. HH