In 1982, Kenichi Horie was steering his boat across the Pacific when raging waves flipped his vessel over. But now, on Sunday, the Japanese native plans to harness this untamed force to fuel a voyage from Honolulu to Japan.
By attempting the 4,350-mile route to his homeland, Horie hopes to set the Guinness world record for the longest distance traveled by a wave-powered boat, and, along with it, raise awareness about an oft-overlooked, renewable power source.
The success of Horie's boat, the Suntory Mermaid II, rests on a propulsion system nestled under the bow. His partner on the project, Yutaka Terao, designed the engine, which utilizes two parallel fins that kick up and down as incoming waves pass through. It is the force of the dolphin-like kicks that will propel the boat across the open ocean.
The 69-year-old sailor isn't new to difficult adventures on the high seas. Horie navigated from Hawaii to Okinawa, Japan, 14 years ago in a foot-paddled boat, setting the world's distance record for feet-powered sailing. In 1996, Horie also set the world record for being the fastest to race a solar powered boat by crossing the Pacific in 148 days.
"He asked me to design him this boat because he's sailed on every kind of boat out there already, and wave powered boats was the only thing that hasn't been done yet," said Terao, an engineer and professor at Takai University in Japan. "He wants to be a pioneer of every kind of voyage."
Long the runt of renewable energy technologies, wave energy has begun to garner interest in some European countries. Last year, an Irish company named WaveBob used a buoy-like machine to convert the ocean's motion into electricity. And in Portugal, officials have moved forward on construction of the world's first offshore wave farm.
But in the United States, the attention given to the technology is dwarfed by investment in solar and wind power. Under the proposed 2008 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, $10 million worth of government funds would go to developing water power technologies such as wave energy. But a hefty $170 million would be provided to solar energy projects.
"This boat clearly demonstrates the possibilities of wave power," said Sean O'Neill, president of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, a national trade association. "And it also shows how nations other than the U.S. are investing in what is a largely untapped renewable energy source."
Even if Suntory Mermaid II successfully docks in Japan, Terao acknowledges that adapting the technology on a much larger scale, say for commercial cargo ships, would be tough and not entirely practical. The boat's speed tops out at five knots, which is about six miles an hour. The trip alone is expected to take close to three months to complete.
"The propulsion system is very simple and depends heavily on the wave conditions, such as wave length and height," Terao explained. "To go really fast, I think we would have to use a hybrid engine system, like how cars do it."
Ted Brekken, an engineer and co-director of the Wallace Energy Systems and Renewables Facility at Oregon State University, agrees with that assessment. "Big businesses need to get cargo to certain places at a certain time and they're not going to want to be at the mercy of what the waves or the wind are doing," Brekken said. "I suspect that this can be developed as a supplementary system but not as the primary source of power."
Still, getting people to notice will be an important victory for the team.
"I have many ideas, but no one understands them," Terao said. "Hopefully, people will want to know more about them now."