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Human Powered Watercraft -- A Status Report
By Doug Milliken, first published in Human Power, The Technical
Journal of the IHPVA. Fall/Winter, 1994-95, Vol.11, No. 4.

Well, its been over a year, and the spray from The Du Pont Human Powered Watercraft Speed Prizes has mostly settled. Not the spray from the vehicles (the fast ones didn't leave much), I'm talking about what was learned from the contest -- by competitors, officials, and the IHPVA as the sanctioning and promoting organization. This article summarizes my view of how it started, what happened and where HP Watercraft might go from here. Along the way I learned a lot about running contests and I'd like to get some of that down too--looking toward the day when IHPVA runs another big contest.

Brief History
My previous article on the Du Pont prizes [reference 1] described the process of setting up the contest and the many people that contributed. It also properly credited Allan Abbott and Alec Brooks with the first demonstration of a fast HP hydrofoil, the Flying Fish, and their dramatic slide show at the Indianapolis Speed Championships in 1984. Not mentioned in the earlier article was Brad Brewster's master's theses [2] which indicated that a HP hydrofoil could be built. There were several popular articles written in the embryonic period of HP watercraft design [3, 4, 5] that give a flavor of the thinking at that time.

To make a long story short, [1] ended with a prediction that the contest would be won in 1990-91. While the "symbolic barrier" of 20 knots (10.37 m/s) was not broken as I had expected, MIT's Decavitator went 18.50 knots (9.53 m/s) in the fall of 1991. This speed was not exceeded during 1992 (the last year of the contest) thus the MIT team led by Mark Drela, Marc Schafer and Matt Wall was the Grand Prize winner [6].

The Contestants
Besides the two teams mentioned above, the other serious team that comes to mind was Sid and Steve Shutt's Hydroped, based on their hydrofoil sailboat experience. The major players (formal entries for the Grand Prize) were very few. In hindsight, this can be easily explained; the 20 knot speed predicted by [7] and used as the Grand Prize goal is hard to achieve. The teams that made headway all had a great deal of previous experience (often professional) in related fields such as hydrodynamics, aerodynamics and/or advanced composite construction.

A number of novel ideas were tried but the contest winners all used combinations of existing technology, albeit with a great deal of cleverness and refinement. Hydrofoils and propellers were eventually used by all the fast machines. While the rules allowed hovercraft, only one Dragonfly was in existence before the contest and this was not developed during the prize period. Parker MacCready's flapping wing machines (culminating in the Preposterous Pogo Foil are probably the closest humans have come to imitating bird flight, given the various attempts at building ornithopters over the last centuries. I am aware of several attempts to build hydroplane-style craft that would "skim" over the water, riding on a trapped bubble of air but none of these (again to the best of my knowledge) were able to get up "on the step" with human power.

From my vantage point, no one team made an all-out effort to exceed the 20 knot goal that we set up as part of the contest. While I had hoped that 20 knots would be broken, thus ending the Grand Prize contest, the structure of the rules (fastest in the four year period) allowed competitors to play a waiting game. By all-out effort, I mean developing a really good vehicle, training an elite athlete to skipper it and finally setting up private record attempts to give the most advantageous operating conditions for the particular craft. Each team had good reasons for their level of effort and I have been told that, behind the scenes, teams that appeared to be quiescent were in fact working quite hard (but not advertising/tipping their hand to the competition). I still think that 20 knots is possible!

Several teams (or potential teams) spent an inordinate amount of time fighting the rules of the contest--either publicly (in Human Power / HPV News) or privately (the correspondence is still in my files...) While defending the rules, I had some moral support from an experienced HPV land racer--his advice to disgruntled competitors was essentially, "get back to the drawing board--the rules have been published and you aren't going to change them". In fact we didn't change the rules although there was a procedure change or two. With that said, all of the competitors and teams were easy to get along with,even under race day pressure, thanks.

Running the Contest (and the yearly events)
In writing the rules, my lack of experience (and time pressure to finalize the contest) led me to make one major mistake--at the time that the rules were published IHPVA didn't really know how to time the 100 meters with automatic start/stop timing. In looking back at some of the notes from the Watercraft Prize ad hoc Committee members, I can see that I was warned about this problem. If there is any one piece of advice I'd like to pass along to future contest directors it is very simple: make sure that all the equipment for judging the contest is reliable, accurate, well understood, tested, and that a number of people are familiar with the system.

IHPVA generally contracts with local promoters to run the IHPSC. The HP water craft were new and unfamiliar to most HPV race promoters. The result was that we usually didn't get the level of support that was required. Another bit of advice to future directors--make sure that there are enough volunteers available to run the event. If the event is new, most of the crew will probably have to come from outside the local area.

The Prize Committee members are ultimately responsible to the IHPVA. What makes a good committee member? Beyond the obvious requirements of interest and experience, consider the following: If the prize is small then the contestants' motivation may be assumed to be "for the glory" thus, relatively idealistic committee members are suggested. On the other hand, if the prize money is high, the contestants have "additional motivation", in this case I think the committee should include fairly "realistic" or "hard" members; with a big prize the "contest" aspect comes first, not the technology that may be developed. This latter is only fair to the sponsor and the competitors (who will work as hard as they can, hopefully within the rules). We had an excellent Prize Committee--thanks for your help.

In the "Regulations and Conditions" [8] we defined a watercraft as using "control by reaction against the water". This had the result that several craft, including the Grand Prize winner, Decavitator, bore little resemblance to traditional ideas about "boats". There seems to be consensus that any future water contest should also require "propulsion by reaction against the water". At the time that the rules were written, the Dragonfly hovercraft was a contestant and Steve Ball's stated reasons for the air prop didn't really get into the speed advantages it might offer.

Future water rules should be more specific on timing (now that MIT has shown us how to do it optically) and on measurement of wind and current. While I personally have no doubt that the actual Grand Prize run was made in legal conditions, the wind measurement procedure and its documentation were not adequately called out in the rules, and this was cause for later complaints.

Another approach to the whole question of "power from the environment" (i.e., wind assist) is to restrict contests to one or two day events. This avoids the whole concept of "fair conditions" that can be duplicated at a number of sites worldwide. Thus the winner on a particular day may well be the team that chooses to run at the most advantageous time. This is certainly true in other forms of racing (car, boat, etc.) where such variables as temperature, surface conditions and/or wind conditions have a big effect on times; part of the game is to second-guess the weather.

One of the goals in writing the rules was to formalize a protest procedure for contestants that was reasonable, and most important workable. The need for a protest procedure was established during the Du Pont Speed Prize for 65 mph on land. No official protests were filed in the watercraft contest, so the rules as written must have worked. However, there were a few complaints filed (see above) and a rewording that might make the procedure even more clear could include:

Protests can only be filed by official entrants in the contest. An entrant is defined as a team that has filed an entry with IHPVA and paid the (typically nominal) entry fee to cover IHPVA expenses.

There is no stigma attached to filing a protest, rather, a protest is a mechanism for opening up the actual detailed facts of an attempt to scrutiny by competitors.

If no protests are filed during the protest period, the attempt is official and not subject to further attack (no double jeopardy for the team being protested).

I am open to comments on the above thoughts and will pass them on to the current IHPVA Rules Committee. The bottom line is that while volunteer officials will try their best to judge accurately, competitors should not trust the officials blindly and there should be a concise review (protest) procedure in place.

What did IHPVA learn?
Size and type of prize(s) - Given the various comments that came my way I could say that the Grand Prize was too big. With $25,000 on the line (and no second place) some entrants took the contest too seriously and lost the sense of technological exploration that IHPVA tries to foster. At other times, I felt that the Grand Prize was not big enough--looking from the outside, it seemed that no team really tried everything possible to break the 20 knot goal. In contrast, the yearly contests (1989, '90, '91) had smaller prize money and the prize list paid down to last place. This latter system was well received by all, I don't recall any serious complaints.

So, you say, why not run future contests this way, with prize money for most entrants. The simple answer is that the money comes from a sponsor and, in general, the sponsor has a big say in how the money is to be spent. I think we were very lucky that Du Pont allowed us to distribute about 1/3 of their total gift over the yearly events.

Operating expenses -- In our agreement with Du Pont, money to run the contest came from interest on the prize money. I can only say we were lucky, the contest coincided with the big bump in interest rates and, by skimping a bit IHPVA came out ahead in running the Grand Prize contest. Thanks to Dick Woodward, Du Pont picked up the operating tab for the yearly events--these events broke even.

Publicity -- If the goal is to really make a big splash, then much more advertising/PR work needs to be done. In hindsight, to do the promotion job right, it should probably be budgeted at an amount similar to the prize money offered. The two go together, with a bigger prize more money should be spent to get the word out. A good recent example is the HP Submarine Races promoted by H. A. Perry; they actually hired a professional promoter/advertising agency to plug their event with the result that they were eventually covered by National Geographic TV. In contrast, our contest PR got a paragraph mention in their magazine.

Contacts made outside the direct area of fast watercraft -- Perhaps the most interesting contact was from the Rockefeller Foundation. RF hired an independent researcher to put together a white paper on technology contests and I was interviewed on the telephone. Her final write-up makes fascinating reading. Most of the contests studied were underfunded (like ours) and thus required a "zealot" (a true believer) to run them. I had to agree that I must be a true believer in the possibilities of human power to put up with the demands of the director's job. This probably applies to most of the IHPVA volunteer staff!

We seem to be in the process of linking up with the HP submarine builders, witness the recent issue of HP on this topic and the recent San Diego event held with IHPVA sanction.

During the contest period, two great HP water achievements occurred. Dwight Collins pedaled his screw-driven "Tango" solo across the North Atlantic (Newfoundland to England) realizing a childhood dream and also breaking the previous rowing records. Kenichi Horie, also in a pedaled, screw driven boat traveled from Hawaii to Japan. Videos were made of both voyages and aired on US/Japan TV.

In Conclusion
Did we contribute to the start of a new sport as I suggested in my previous article? I would say that the answer is a tentative yes, judging by the new pedal powered craft on the market, i.e., Eide Seacycle, Yamaha Waverunner and others listed in the IHPVA Source Guide.   International interest is also high at this time with similar contests run in Europe (the Waterbike Contest) and especially in Japan with the first Japanese IHPVA sanctioned event, the Second All Japan HPB races and the well sponsored Dream Ship Contest (strangely, the DS Contest is only open to entrants from Japan). Unfortunately, the future of both of the Japanese contests is in doubt as they have lost their major sponsors.

In the making are two new vehicles that I am aware of, a fast monohull displacement boat and a "recreational hydrofoil" with lower power requirement. Both use water props and rudders. I won't steal the builders fire by revealing their names, both groups are well known to IHPVA members, just watchthese pages...

While there is no new watercraft contest in the near future, the goal of 20 knots has not been achieved. With or without a prize, I think this sprint speed will be reached, but it may take a long time -- look at how long the Gold Rush 65+ mph record stood, and the commitment required by the Cheetah team to beat it.

At the 1994 IHPVA Annual Meeting in Eureka, CA, the Board of Directors elected Nancy Sanford as your new Vice President for Water. Nancy is the enthusiastic owner of an HP watercraft and brings her user's perspective to the job. I'm sure you will be hearing more from her. For me, it's been a fun, educational, and challenging five years, thanks again to all who helped out.

Doug Milliken is a long-time HPV builder, wind tunnel junkie (bikes and race cars), and former IHPVA VP-Water. He is also the co-author of the book, "Race Car Vehicle Dynamics", which can can be seen on the SAE Online Bookstore (www.sae.org). He is a dealer for Alex Moulton Bicycles, accessories and parts (USA). For information on AM products, he can be reached at his engineering company Milliken Research.


1.  Milliken, Doug, "Creation and development of the Du Pont human-powered watercraft speed prizes", Human Power, Vol. 8 No. 1, Summer 1990.

2.  Brewster, M. B., "The Design and Development of a Man-Powered Hydrofoil", B.S.M.E. theses, M.I.T., Cambridge, MA, May 1979.

3.  Wilson, David Gordon, "A Short History of Human-Powered Vehicles", American Scientist, Vol. 74, July-August 1986.

4.  Brooks, Alec N., Allan V. Abbott, and David Gordon Wilson, "Human-powered Watercraft", Scientific American, December 1986.

5.  Wilson, David Gordon, "Getting in Gear: Human-Powered Transportation", Technology Review, October 1979.

6.  Drela, Mark, Marc Schafer, Matt Wall, "Decavitator human-powered hydrofoil",Human Power, Vol 9, No. 3, Fall-Winter 1991-2.

7.  Brooks, Alec N., "The 20-knot human powered water craft", Human Power, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 1987.

8.  "The Du Pont Human Powered Watercraft Speed Prizes, Regulations and Conditions", IHPVA 1989.


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