The Sail Bike

Categories: Bike Blog

While I was riding across the country, I had a thought – actually, I had lots of thoughts, some of them very weird indeed, but this was one of them: what if my bike had a sail? The idea had particular appeal to me as I was crossing Nebraska, where a consistent and ceaseless easterly wind pushed at me day after day. I was going west. If I had a sail in that wind, I figured, Nebraska would be a joy ride.

It turns out – of course – that the idea wasn’t unique. People have been strapping sails to dry-land vessels for ages. You can sail on the ice, you can sail on the sand. There’s a whole sport dedicated to Land Sailing, in which competitors race each other in ‘land yachts’ – essentially, tiny cars with sails attached.

Tom Leach, like me, came to the idea of bicycle sailing by himself. Unlike me, he actually went about figuring out how to pull it off. Leach spoke to the Bike Blog from Harwich Port, Massachusetts, where he is Harbormaster. The idea to build a sail bike, he says, came to him upon a Super Bowl Sunday.

“I don’t know what made me start thinking about it, but I had been thinking about it for years, and I thought well, I have time before the football game, I have parts for a sailboat, and if I can get these on the bike, maybe I can get this to work. It was one of those things where you build it and then you design it, you know?”

He called it the Cape Cod Wind Bike.

Leach used a cruiser – wide handle bars, low center of gravity. He took a short wooden mast from a dingy called a “Cape Cod frosty” and clamped it to the bike with u-bolts. He attached a boom coming directly out the back of the bike, and below it, attached by a string, a “boomkin” to restrict the boom from swinging too far in either direction. Then he ran a line through the sail, over some blocks, and to the handlebars, where he could hold it and pull the sail taut against the wind.

You’ll get an idea from the pictures.

He tested the bike in a nearby parking lot and, he says, it worked.

“Obviously you can’t sail into the eye of the wind . . [but] you can sail pretty close to the wind and keep the bike going. And you can use the pedals to peddle into the new tack.”

Controlling the sail by pulling the line, he says, was pretty straightforward. “I was surprised,” he says. “It actually felt very stable. The handlebars on a cruiser bike are wide, so it’s easy to keep control.” He has one warning, though: “One thing you don’t ever do is put a line in your teeth – that’s a dangerous thing.”

Since making his first sail bike, Leach says he’s heard from others who have experimented with the idea. A man named Pierre-Yves Gires posted to Leach’s page a picture of his own wind bike, which he claims goes up to forty miles per hour.

Leach hasn’t taken the Cape Cod Wind Bike out much since he made it -- but he’s always working on something, he says: “Crazy ideas – that’s always been my thing.” He does, though, point out the potential usefulness of wind bikes in our pre-apocalyptic times of energy consumption:

“You know, as we run out of fuel here, I could see how it could have some application.”

Sounds good to us - anybody have a sail? -- Isaiah Thompson

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