Sailing across America


“Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power — that is, power to move things.”
Abraham Lincoln, speech during the 1860 presidential campaign

Any cyclist on a long journey will hope for a tailwind from time to time to provide some respite for weary legs. But for John MacTaggart, a steady, reliable wind was essential to the success of his trip.

Pterosail trike

MacTaggart, you see, “sailed” across the United States this past summer aboard a recumbent trike fitted with a sail, to capture the main source of propulsion for his vehicle — the wind.
The trike was made by Pterosail Trike Systems, which has its headquarters in North Liberty, Iowa, about 10 miles northwest of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. MacTaggart, a 26-year-old mechanical engineer, is the company’s CEO.
“Pterosail Trike Systems believes that the best way to showcase our green technology is by doing something truly historic: sailing and cycling across the United States!” the company’s website says. “The dream of using the wind for travel, safely and effectively, has finally come together and become a reality.”
MacTaggart began his “truly historic” journey on June 28 in San Diego, Calif., and finished Aug. 12 in St. Augustine, Fla. He traveled mostly along Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier route, which I followed in the fall of 2009 on my own cross-country bicycle trip.
The idea for the sail-powered trike came from Phil MacTaggart, father of John MacTaggart. Here’s how the eureka moment is described on the company’s website:

MacTaggart's route

“While riding a trike on a windy day in rural Iowa and noticing how the recumbent trike’s low profile kept high winds from slowing it down as it does to a normal bike, Phil MacTaggart had an inspiration: the two front wheels of a trike could support a mast where a sail could be attached. The wind could then be used for propulsion. Phil MacTaggart began putting together the first prototype Pterosail.”
Phil MacTaggart sent an e-mail describing his brainchild to his son, a professional mariner who was working as an engineer aboard the USNS Bruce Heezen, an oceanographic ship charting the ocean floor off the coast of the Philippines. Once his sea tour was completed, John focused on improving and developing the “Pterosail,” named for the pterodactyl, a flying dinosaur, and pronounced “terra-sail,” sailing over land.
The machine that emerged from the brainstorming is a custom-built, street-legal three-wheeler that combines cycling, sailing and solar technologies. “It can even store power generated from the wind into batteries to assist with pedaling when the wind subsides,” the website says.
The electrical energy generated by the wind is stored in two 24-volt marine batteries, which can then be used to power a small electric-assist motor. The trike needs a wind of 8-10 mph to start moving down the road and can reach a speed of about 40 mph.
The video of MacTaggart on his cross-country journey shows the trike galloping along mostly on straight highways with a steady wind providing the power. But I wonder what skills are required to keep the trike on a straight course.
MacTaggart is a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and presumably a pretty good sailor as well as cyclist. But as one who has yet to master the rudiments of sail-trimming, I’d proably be a hazard to myself and others on the road while fussing with the sail in contrary winds.
I also wonder whether the trike would be vulnerable to capsize in the stiff cross winds frequently encountered in wide-open spaces like those in West Texas and whether the sail would be more trouble than it’s worth in climbing mountain passes with multiple switchbacks.
Finally, what if there’s no wind?
Nevertheless, the Pterosail is a very cool machine.

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4 Comments

Filed under Americana, Cool stuff, Cycling across America, Journeys, Travels

4 responses to “Sailing across America

  1. John Vandevelde

    Wow! Fascinating. I would love to ride along and see it live. The video scares me because it feels like you can’t see and you can’t easily control the bike and keep it far enough to the right to avoid frustrating drivers of cars or getting run over. Plus, Dolores would say it is “cheating.” Regardless, I am very impressed and congratulate John and his father on their ingenuity, skill and daring. –John

  2. Interesting after a fashion, like Ebikes. I wonder how well it would do going from East to West? For me, much of the magic of sailing is the ability to seemingly sail against the wind. In reality, one is working with the wind and sail to tack upwind. I’m curious how the Pterocycle does in this regard.

  3. Wow — that’s really cool!
    Peace 🙂

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