Go Fly a Kite

Kiteboards are hugely popular on windy coastlines worldwide. And while recent foiling technology has brought cutting-edge equipment and greater excitement to the competitive sport, for almost two decades one individual has been taking kite technology in a completely new direction. Don Montague, a former professional windsurfer on the World Cup Tour, a one-time professional kitesurfer, and an all-around wind-energy guru, wanted to develop a way to harness wind energy while entertaining family and friends at the same time.

In 1997 Montague experimented with controlling a kite by hand while riding in an outrigger canoe in Hawaii and thought there must be a better (and drier) way of doing this. Over the years, he and his cadre of wind enthusiasts developed a series of prototype Kiteboats through Makani Power (now a Google company, www.google.com/makani), a wind energy company he co-founded in 2006. These vessels have generally comprised two foiling out-rigger hulls supported by a central hull and controlled via crew on a large rotating disk. The entire boat is powered by a relatively average-looking kite controlled on board by a series of lines much like a standard kiteboard.

kiteboatKai Concepts

As proof of concept, Don Montague and his San Francisco Bay Area team hope to sail from California to Hawaii in a kite-powered foiling catamaran.

The team will attempt to sail the fifth prototype (currently under construction) from California to Hawaii in three days, a distance of approximately 2,100 nautical miles, ideally in a flat sea state and about 10 knots of breeze. This will have them traveling at around 30–35 knots until the end, when they reach the big island and things start to get a bit crazy for about five hours in much heavier air.

Visiting their facility in Alameda, California, it’s immediately clear that this is a program funded on the scale of an America’s Cup syndicate. All design and manufacturing (save for the kites) is done in-house. Because they are prototyping and often pulling just one or two parts off a mold, they frequently machine molds directly, but for certain parts they will first machine a plug on a 5-axis CNC mill. To make the T-foils for the oceangoing Kiteboat, they machine plugs from birch plywood, and then laminate female molds off the plugs with carbon fiber biaxial fabrics.

The actual T-foils are prepreg carbon fiber with a birch shear web. The hulls of the new Kiteboat are made from prepreg skins with a honeycomb sandwich core. Parts are cured in-house in a composites oven built into an insulated shipping container. For odd-sized parts, Montague and his team build temporary ovens to fit.

The technology is equal to and on par with anything being done with America’s Cup cats. But what’s exciting about their designs is that they are not subject to the same restrictions on foil design, and therefore adjustments can be made with the touch of a button to multiple control surfaces in the water. There are 10 GoPro cameras on the current test platform. A quadcopter captures video of each test flight, and over a dozen sensors on the boat constantly record data while on the water. All data are meticulously recorded in notebooks (available online) for each year of the project, so these “open source” data allow potential developers free access to detailed information.

Challenges for the Kiteboat’s team have been few and far between. “There was no challenge that we haven’t overcome,” says Montague. “I have this different sense because I had tested so many windsurfing sails in Hawaii, something like 20 a day and another 20 kites a day as well. And I would have people on the beach with a kite, and they would put it on right away and I would go out, and I knew it was wrong in 30 seconds, and I knew what was wrong. So when we go out [on the Kiteboat] I have done all the computer modeling, and I know exactly what needs to be done to the boat because I can feel it. So the hardest challenge is actually convincing everyone else that I am right and that we need to make a change and that we need to make it now. That’s my biggest challenge—to make people change their path; that’s not human nature.”

Where will the Kiteboat go? “It’ll go around the world,” says Montague. “It’ll go to Hawaii. It will go across the Atlantic. Will it then go around the world with us? Who knows? But somebody will use the kite [technology] because it is more efficient and everyone knows it; every designer and racer knows the kite is the way, because the foilers are beating everyone.”

Although a vessel of this nature traveling across oceans and at high speeds is certain at some point to be damaged by an object in the water, Montague puts their chances of getting to Hawaii this summer at about 49%. It may likely take more than one attempt to reach the islands, but he is not myopic, looking to long-term success at making many ocean crossings. Ultimately, their goal is to use their terabyte-laden mountain of data to make ocean travel more efficient.

Kai Concepts, 1651 Viking St. #3, Alameda, CA 94501 USA, website www.project.kiteboat.com.