Holy boats! It’s a batwing sail!

A part-time lecturer at the University of Plymouth has come up with a patented idea for a revolutionary mast and sail design based on bat wings.

Dr Richard Dryden, from the University’s Department of Biological Sciences, received his inspiration from the variable geometry wings of bats and birds.

The idea is for a mast and sail that can change shape according to conditions, and fold away when not in use.

The mast is a jointed structure with three segments arranged in a shallow and vertical Z-shape, and is tensioned to hold it in the extended position. When sailing in light winds, the mast is fully extended.

In stronger winds, the joints of the mast become more flexed, with the upper segment becoming more swept back. This brings the centre of effort of the sail – the place where all the forces seem to be centred – lower down and reducing the risk of overpowering.

Because the mast changes shape, the sailcloth has to be able to adapt and must be elastic, contrasting with conventional sailcloths that have been developed to minimise stretch.

When the rig is not required it can be folded into a compact bundle by releasing the tensioning of the mast. There is no need to remove the sail or dismantle the rig before folding which makes it convenient when the boat is moored or being transported, and is also said to contribute to safety during extreme sailing conditions.

Over the last few years prototypes have been tested on sailboards and a dinghy. Now funding of £45,000 has been received from NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, which will enable Dr Dryden to work full time on the project for the next year.

‘The initial priority is market research, to see whether or not there is an opening in the sailing market for a rig of this type, said Dr Dryden. ‘It is believed at present that the concept will be applicable across the sailing spectrum, from the smaller applications such as sailboards and dinghies to larger vessels such as wind-assisted tankers, although the effects of differences in scale will need to be tested.

If a suitable market niche can be identified, design work and the preparation of pre-production prototypes will follow in the second half of the year.’

More on the web at: www.transitionrig.com.