19 1/2 Similarities Between Sailboats and Wind Turbines

Guest Blog | February 17, 2014 | Energy Policy, Wind

Wind turbines and sailboats share many commonalities. Both are super advanced, highly popular and lovable, low cost and protective of the environment, but do you know all of the 19 1/2 ways wind turbines and sailboats are similar?

1. Sailboats and wind turbines have advanced way beyond their predecessors.

Windmills are to modern wind turbines as the Mayflower is to today’s composite-fiber trimarans. A skipper racing in the America’s Cup would probably punch you in the throat if you called their ship a dingy. So…it’s probably about time to stop calling wind turbines “windmills”.

Photo credits: Pilgrim Hall MuseumGilles Martin-RagetMetropolitan Museum of Art, General Electric

2. First “modern” sailboats and wind turbines were created in America.

The first person to use fiberglass to build the hull of a sailboat was Ray Greene back in the 1940s in Ohio. That same decade, the first megawatt-scale wind turbine was erected in Vermont. Additional evidence that post-Depression, World War II America truly was the Greatest Generation. ‘Merica.

Photo credits: Sailboatplan.net, National Renewable Energy Lab

3. Sailboats and wind turbines rely heavily on fiberglass.

Sailboats usually have some form of a fiberglass hull. Wind turbine blades are predominantly fiberglass, as are the nacelles (the ‘gear’ boxes that contain the generator). Both use lots of molded fiberglass to get their structure and fiberglass manufacturers rejoice.

Photo Credits: Boats Blog, Siemens 

4. Sailboats and wind turbines use advanced aerodynamics. 

Turbine blade aerodynamics sailboat

Wind turbine blade aerodynamics help turbines capture wind more efficiently. Sailboat hulls use advanced “hydrodynamics” (since they’re in water), but those sails definitely have aerodynamic components. #math #physics

Photo credits: Purdue University,WB Sails

5. Sailboats and wind energy get priority treatment. 

On the water, sailboats generally have right of way, meaning motor boats have to steer clear – this is for boating safety. In a deregulated utility market, wind power gets “picked” first for dispatch, along with other renewable energies – this is done to reduce ratepayer costs. Wind wins!

Photo credits: Kalkomey Enterprises, Energy Information Administration

6. Sailboats and wind turbines get a boost from a good cleaning.

Boats beget barnacles, blades beget bugs. A good inspection and scrub can help boost performance and efficiency. Specialty paints can also help (commonly referred to as “anti-fouling” paint). Boats also get slime, and blades also get soil; but those stuffs didn’t suit the alliteration.

Photo credits: Durall Boat Bottom Paint, BS Rotor Technic

7. Sailboats and wind energy have backup plans.

The wind doesn’t always blow; but, the whole point to sailboats and wind farms is that you use the wind when you can. Every moment you’re using the wind is an extra moment you’re not burning fuel. In a sailboat’s case, that fuel may be a diesel or gasoline motor; with wind farms, that other fuel could be coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar or some other source of power generation. In some instances, wind farms have actually provided the back up to other sources of power generation. The old sailor proverb goes: “Pray to God, but row to shore.”

Photo credits: Fun RunnersNational Renewable Energy Lab

8. Heavy weights keep sailboats and wind turbines upright.  

Some sailboats use weighted keels for ballast, to keep the wind from tipping the boat over. Wind turbines have sturdy foundations, usually made of concrete, or pile driven to hold the turbine in place. Which would you rather tip over: a sailboat/wind turbine or the Exxon Valdez/Deepwater Horizon? (You’re not allowed to answer “All of the Above”…)

Photo credits: Yacht Pals, Pacific Northwest National Lab

9. Sailors and coastal wind farms benefit from the Sea Breeze Effect.

The Sea Breeze Effect occurs when air temperature differentials between the land and large waterbodies (oceans, lakes, etc.) results in wind blowing; this effect is prominent on hot summer afternoons when utility load demands are high. Those hot summertime afternoons and associated sea breezes also coincide well with a sailor’s need to get to shore in order to make the Margaritaville happy hour. (Seriously, this is no joke. We’ve studied it and have data. Peak times for the sea breeze effect, utilities power demands and happy hours are 3PM-7PM.)

Photo credits: SAIL Magazine, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

10. Sailboats and wind farms have minimal environmental impact.

Consider the alternatives. Whale versus sailboat turns out much differently than whale versus cargo ship.

Photo credits: SFGate, Newscom.

Consider your alternatives.

Photo credit: Joe Heller,

11. Sailboats and wind turbines change direction to capture the wind.

Sailboats use a rudder to tack (change direction) to better capture the wind, and avoid collisions. Wind turbines use yaw systems to face into the wind. Sailboats also yaw where a boat rotates on its vertical axis, but that may not be intentional. While tacking is usually intentional, getting whacked by the boom and sailing into the water may not be. Tack = DUCK!

Photo credits: Dick Rose’s Animated Rules, Danish Wind Energy Association

12. Sailboats and wind turbines can be finely adjusted to maximize wind power.

Sailboats “trim” their sails and use a “jib” sail to help maximize wind power (or throw folks to the “high side” during “heeling” to prevent capsizing). Wind turbines “feather” blades in rough weather, like hurricanes, to prevent too much blade exposure and slow rotation. Blade feathering can also be called pitching, which means something radically different in the sailing world, and is usually associated with “heaving” as well; so I’ve chosen to not mention it.

Photo credits: Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation,Windurance 

13. Sailors and wind farm developers know how to “read the wind”. 

Frequently, sailors and wind developers use similar equipment to read the wind: anemometers, weather vanes and wind forecasts. Wind speed is important, but also wind direction. Wind direction affects sailing conditions, but also predominant wind directions also affect how a wind farm should be spaced out.

Photo credits: Wise Geek, James Madison University

14. Sailors and wind farm developers pay attention to geography. 

If a sailor is in a protected cove, s/he knows the winds out on the open water will be much stronger than being experienced in a cove. Similarly, wind farm developers know that wind speeds are better at higher altitudes. That’s why harbors are popular for sailboats, and why wind turbines are getting taller.

Photo credits: Natural Navigator, Colorado State University

15. Cats.

This isn’t just a gratuitous attempt to try to bring cats into this list. Okay…maybe a little. Cats have a long history with sailing, and in the wind energy industry. Perhaps the most famous sailing cats are Ernest Hemingway’s six-toed (polydactyl) cats in Key West. According to the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, Hemingway’s first six-toed cat was gifted to him by a ship captain. Cats love boats, but they perhaps love fishermen (and their spare fish) on the boats more-so. Evolution has also made cats into stealthy killing machines, which is why they’re much more dangerous to birds than wind turbines are.

Photo credits: Cat Funs, Carbon Brief

16. People love sailboats and wind power.

People wear sailboat jewelry, buy sailboat art, snap bajillions of pictures of sailboats, decorate their rooms in nautical themes, romanticize sailors and fantasize about sailing in novels.  According to The Sailing Company annual market report on sailing, more people are sailing. PEOPLE. LOVE. SAILING. Similarly, wind power is wildly popular. Sailing and visiting wind turbines are extremely popular ecotourism activities. And just 7% of Americans have “unfavorable” impressions of wind energy, according to a recent survey by Navigant Research. If you hate sailing or wind turbines, that’s just…unAmerican! #iHEARTwind

Photo credits: HH Tammen via Card Cow, Iberdrola

17. Rum.

Sailors love rum. Bacardi rum loves wind power.

Photo credits: My Barnwood Frames, Bacardi

18. Sailboats and wind energy support each other. 

Need additional energy onboard? Put a small wind turbine on. Need the fastest sailboat ever built? Get a wind turbine manufacturer (Vestas) to build it. The Vestas Sailrocket 2 has the world record at 65.45 knots – that’s 75 miles per hour. The competition was literally blown away.

Photo credits: Technology Green Energy Blog,  Sail Rocket

19. Sailboats and wind turbines use the same fuel: The wind!


Photo credit: Distant Shores.

20. The fossil fuel industry is spending millions of dollars to actively oppose wind energy and sailboats. 

Well…at least half of this is true.

Photo credit: Dave Granlund

Know any sailors that like wind energy? Head on over to the Sailors for Wind Power Facebook group

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