A ship of fools

And the beauty of things.

My new Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/groups/524455598277075/

Title photograph via wiki commons : Flora’s Wagon of Fools by Hendrik Gerritsz Pot (c. 1637)

In my life as an outdoorsman iv’e been very privileged to meet some of the great people in each discipline that iv’e messed about in myself.  As a young climber way back i was struggling with the beginning moves on a climb at Stanage edge one day when none other than Doug Scott walked past and showed me how to make those first awkward moves.  One day in Punta del Este (Uruguay) i chewed the fat with the late Peter Blake and not long after that i got to have a long chat about the circumnavigation we’d just done with with the first solo circumnavigator ; Robin Knox-Johnston himself.

One time, i was sat at an open fire in a woodland in the south east of England with a bunch of other bushcraft students and we were talking to Ray Mears  and strangely, having a discussion about the beauty of made ‘things’…..like you do !

I remember Ray saying that in his opinion the most beautiful object ever made was the birch bark canoe as made by the first peoples of the north-eastern woodlands of the now  USA and Canada.  Ray, i know, went on to build a birch bark canoe with a local builder and i also know that he has a beautifully built cedar-canvas working man’s canoe built by one of the last great traditional canoe builders .

Ray’s choice….Birch bark canoe. Birchbark_canoe,_Abbe_Museum,_Bar_Harbor,_ME_IMG_2301

By Billy Hathorn – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34087679

Now, i like wooden canoes, i once had and regularly paddled a working mans cedar-canvas boat myself although iv’e never paddled a birch bark canoe.  I disagreed with Mr Mears though as, in my opinion, the most beautiful things ever made were the Viking era longships : later on it would be that opinion and me shooting my mouth off that almost got me into a bit of trouble in NZ…..you see , this post is directly connected to the last post ‘Water not Required’.

My choice : ‘Draken Harald Halfagre’

Viking Nilsson for Draken


I used to joke that the first time i ever flew long distance was all the way to New Zealand ; which is about as far as you can get without already being on the return journey.  I also used to add that my first visit to NZ was when i flew in , caught a taxi around to Queens wharf in Auckland, stepped aboard the big yellow boat and promptly sailed away.  On my second visit we sailed in on the big yellow bus, stepped ashore at the same wharf, thus completing my first circumnavigation, had a beer or 3….and promptly sailed out again !.  So it wasn’t until my third visit to the country that i actually saw something of the country beyond a wharf and then we (Jax and me) saw a whole load of it because we spent 4 months there and i was really sad to come home.

I could say that we walked into some ‘awesome’ scenery and that would be true because it did give me a sense of awe and wonder just as places like Yosemite do : i avoid the word today merely because it’s over-used to the point where it seems to mean ‘quite good’.  I would say that we walked into some of the wildest and most rugged places that we’ve ever been together although sadly today i have very few digital photographs and none of that first trip….if you want to know ‘what’s it like’ then go and watch 10 minutes of Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy which was all filmed there and no, it isn’t just clever CGI and model making.

Near French pass, North island NZ.


It was during that first trip that i nearly got into a spot of aggro with one of the locals ; a big Maori, and because of a throwaway comment i made about their big ceremonial waka (canoe) which lives under a shelter near the national Marae and treaty house at Waitangi .  The WAKA (canoe) is what i would recognise as a 35 metre log canoe similar to the large canoes of the Haida people of the western parts of modern British Columbia.

While the large Haida war canoes and the similar Maori Waka are funky looking boats they are appallingly bad seaboats and primarily because of their shape, namely their lack of sheer and extreme length to beam ratio which is driven by the fact that they are basically hollowed out trees.  One of the Haida boats is known as ‘wave-eater’, not because it’s a good boat but because it’s so wet….the ceremonial waka is so bad in this respect that while 40 big Maori warriors are paddling it , another 4 are continually baling it out !

That hull shape only starts to work when you either strap 2 of them together ie build a double sailing canoe (catamaran) or add a smaller log off to one side (proa)…i have a lot of respect for both and a strange fondness for James Wharram’s designs which are largely borrowed from original Polynesian double canoe principles.  The polynesians knew that and those craft were highly capable ocean going craft that they then used to colonise large areas of the Pacific with.  Iv’e always felt that it’s a shame that they found and colonised the islands we now know as New Zealand ( Aotearoa) , and then seemingly forgot everything they knew about ocean seamanship….what remains are culturally important artefacts like the great waka  at Waitangi which looks good but that you wouldn’t even want to paddle on a calm pond.

I won’t go into detail about my comments on seeing the waka for the first time that day : impressed i wasn’t although i love the art of both the Haida painter/carvers and the similar work of Maori carvers and painters in the meeting halls of their ‘Marae’….the one in the national museum in Wellington is almost hallucinatory.

Haida dugout canoe. ( wiki commons)


I can well imagine some of my readers now going ‘yes, all very well but…..basically wtf’ so allow me to explain the journey today.

This post is directly linked to my previous post ‘Water not Required’ and what you are seeing and reading is all of the material that didn’t go into that post for the very good reason that it would have spoiled the story.     Having written the complete post i then realised that this part of the material didn’t fit the post and that what i needed to do was simplify that one and then do a second post with that other material.   I had a lot of fun with that post because i was in the zone where i know nothing about the subject to start off with and iv’e got everything to learn.  Al helped me along by providing the practical notes and the leads on where to look.  Some basic research then took me into this whole side of sail powered craft that were new to me ; not just land yachts, but record breaking ones on the one hand and the strange and otherworldly ‘wind-wagons’ on the other.

Sail wagon….wiki commons.


In my previous post my focus was on land yachts and land yachting, i didn’t say much about the actual ‘boats’ because i don’t know that much about them and had to rely on Al’s notes, wikipedia and a couple of evenings work tracking down leads such as the ‘Greenbird’ project….how is it that i didn’t even know that it was a British sailor who holds the land speed record for sail powered craft ?.

But lets take a look at land yachts as designed and built objects and then segue into design aesthetics ; at which point i can start to tie in the first section of this post.

The first time i saw a land yacht in this country my head said “bastard offspring of go-cart meets Laser dinghy” …..it looked and was functional and it did look like a backyard shed project made from whatever bits and pieces the builder had laying around.   The land yachts that Alan and Nina have look altogether more ‘sorted’ as functional objects and they do have a stripped down functional look about them.  You could say that they look like ‘what it says on the tin’….that everything about them is all about the function and that’s it : not even fancy paintwork or go-fasta stripes to tart them up.  In short, they are what they are, they work and from what i hear, Al and Nina have a lot of fun with them.

If we shift our gaze over to boats for a moment i think that we would each find boats that look good to us and some that don’t, even perhaps some that we look at and wonder what the designer or builder was thinking.  A good example is James Wharram’s designs, like Marmite (or Vegemite) you’ll tend to either like them or really dislike them.  I quite like them and understand them, when they were here i found that Nina particularly dislikes them for example.  I’ll admit that a lot of the early, owner modified ones look like a dogs dinner with a shed on top but that was often the fault of the builder rather than the designer.  I actually have an entire photo file in my picture library called ‘Fugly’, which is just there for the really ugly boats that make even me wince….i hardly ever use them on the site because some misguided soul out there and must at least like them if not love them.

I definitely have a slightly odd aesthetic sense for things generally and boats specifically ; my boat as an example is a bit of an ugly duckling from some angles and yet i like her.    Many readers will know that i totally detest the UK’s most popular 26 foot cruising yacht and yet i really like one that is it’s workaday cousin : that’s the unspeakably awful Centaur and the odd but homely looking Macwester.   Most people go into paroxysms of delight over the J class yachts and guess what…..i hate them !, ditto most superyachts.  A couple of nights ago i sat through a video of the ‘Black Pearl’ (Ken Freivokh), not quite as pretentiously horrible as ‘A’ but close….only in my opinion of course. Not that it matters as i won’t be banging on Ken Freivokh’s, or Phillipe Starck’s  door to design me a replacement for WABI”’

Taking that idea a step further i now think i have a generally quirky eye for ‘stuff’ and not just in relation to boats.  Our home is gradually evolving to look like Bilbo Baggins’s place at Bag End ie ‘woody’ and rather English arts and crafts vernacular….that and the books, maps and discarded Orcs helmets laying about the place….always tripping over the bloody things we are !. As well as tree-wood I really like a lot of quirky, industrial ‘found’ stuff such as old tools and old black and white nautical charts which are beautifully precise with a sharpness of detail that is better than the more modern ones i use every day aboard WABI”’.  Last year, when i went to London for JBP’s book tour lecture i took the time to re-visit the science museum ; many of the Victorian era steam engines aren’t just breathtaking breakthroughs in engineering but they’re also beautifully built ‘things’ in their own right.

London science museum UK (wiki commons)


At the extremely odd end i tend towards a form of ‘stuff’ that is best described as a form of steam-punk but i also find that ‘the look’ of those objects in that style has a very sharp ‘cliff edge’ and that as soon as something doesn’t look functional or at least look as though it might work….then the appeal passes by very quickly.  The opposite side of that is that i realise that i like things which look carelessly, even crudely thrown together and yet that function surprisingly well.   An example of that, if you know your fantasy films, would be the ‘Clacks’ from the film version of Terry Pratchett’s book ‘Going Postal’.

The Clacks alphabet.


In my previous post i used some material that i lifted directly from the wikipedia page about land yachting and i almost included a whole section about the history of land yachts and wind-wagons but eventually decided not to because it took the post away from where i wanted it.   Today i absolutely want to talk about that history and at the end leave you with something equally as inspiring (to me) as the young and ballsy British land-yacht designer from the last post skimming across the surface of the Mojave desert at 126 mph by wind power alone…..and with the help of some carbon fibre bits !

In the wikipedia page are some references to wind powered wagons of some kind as far back as 1600 in China, although sadly there are no photographs so iv’e no idea how large they were or what form.  There are a couple of images that i found that represent wind assisted hand carts : essentially wheelbarrows but i wondered if at some time there were maybe much larger wind powered wagons.  The wikipedia page certainly suggests that there were wagons capable of carrying 30 people…..

“…….The earliest text describing the Chinese use of mounting masts and sails on large vehicles is the Book of the Golden Hall Master written by the Daoist scholar and crown prince Xiao Yi, who later became Emperor Yuan of Liang (r. 552–554 AD). He wrote that Gaocang Wushu invented a “wind-driven carriage” which was able to carry thirty people at once. There was another built in about 610 for the Emperor Yang of Sui (r. 604–617), as described in the Continuation of the New Discourses on the Talk of the Times.

I like Junks by the way, they look great and they are beautifully functional machines.


European travelers from the 16th century onwards mentioned sailing carriages with surprise. In 1585 (during the Chinese Ming Dynasty), Gonzales de Mendoza wrote that the Chinese had many coaches and wagons mounted with sails, and even depicted them in artwork of silk hanfu robes and on earthenware vessels. In the 1584 atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum written by the cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598), there are large Chinese carriages depicted with sails and masts. Likewise, there are the same Chinese vehicles with sails depicted in the Atlas of Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594), as well as the 1626 book Kingdome of China by John Speed. The English poet John Milton (1608–1674) popularized the Chinese sailing carriage in Europe with a poem written in 1665.

In the 19th century, “windwagons” were occasionally used for transport across the American great plains. Rail-running sail cars were also used in South America. One such sailcar existed on the Dona Teresa Cristina Railroad in Santa Catarina, Brazil in the 1870’s.”


Holding on to the possible existence of large wind powered wagons that far back then rang an odd bell in my own memory (aren’t they all ?) in that i remember a graphic sci-fi art book from the 1970’s that took that idea and created an entire nomadic people and culture living out in the vast  grasslands and semi arid badlands of that strange area that is the Eurasian steppe.  Purple area below

One of the very last model-making projects that i attempted, just as i discovered beer, old and loose British motorbikes, looser women and tight rock climbing , was that of trying to create one of the land ships or wind wagons from that story….in fact it was only one picture that i was working with and my best memory of it is as a cross between a galleon and a junk but mounted on wheels….and ‘moored’ up against a low cliff in a sandstorm.  Pure fantasy and whimsy of course and the project quickly failed due to a lack of tools, materials and time….and a rather attractive young lady whose knickers i was trying to get off at the time…hey-ho, life of a 17 year old and all that !


So, i forgot about the whole thing until just recently when i was writing the ‘water not required’ post and thinking about land yachts again ; and by accident discovered that wind wagons may have been as much fact as fantasy.   Something that iv’e said before and is worth re-visiting is that i think that it was model making that gave me a good idea for form and detail and the almost instant ability to see if something looks right and largely ‘how it works’.  Fantasy models are incredibly difficult in this respect because many just don’t look as though they would function ; compare one that does look as though it might actually work, for example Thunderbird 2 from the Jerry Anderson original, and say a tank from Games Workshop which looks ridiculous and childish.

Weta studio’s version….looks right to me !


I was thinking that it would be a huge amount of fun to build a modern wind-wagon that would actually work and maybe start with a small one first ; perhaps even a working model that could be ‘sailed’ on the beach.   One thing iv’e always fancied doing is a practical steam punk-esque vehicle ; something like a roadworthy trike with a little motor in the back. But then i thought “why not do it with sail” thus ‘sail-punk’ was born on my computer !.

I think Al was surprised when, during my writing the original post, i was suddenly pumping him for his knowledge about basic welding…and that because my first design would call for a welded up chassis rather like a bike frame although mine would be more like a recumbent with 2 wheels at the front and a rig of course.  On the purely practical side iv’e just been trying to get my head around how to make the steering work…ackerman perhaps.    From there i played around with the idea of how different cultures would design and build wind-wagons for example how the Chinese rigs would have worked and how they would have been built,  thus i came up with one model design largely made from natural materials ; the kind of stuff i could go out and harvest in the woods….that isn’t a mad idea because that’s exactly how the birch bark canoe was built.

I designed, well at least sketched out, a far eastern version with the odd symmetry of junks and sampans and then a wild west version ie Kansas wagon meets tall ship…..which is when i found that a completely bonkers crew from Sweden had done exactly that and sailed it across the desert to the burning man festival.

Enjoy. (if you want to skip to the sailing it starts at around 40 minutes in)

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