Reply to Denney's critiques of Brown et al by Steven Callahan, Apr 2, 2008 - posted to Proa File International (

posts by Steven Callahan to proa_file forum:

  • Reply to Denney's critiques of Brown et al Apr 2, 2008
  • The Denney Inquisition Apr 13
  • Part 2: Jzerro, that miserable dog Apr 15
    comments: leepod dimensions, wikipedia, copyright issues
  • confused: reply to Dave Culp May 10
  • confused: reply to Rob Denney May 10
  • Part 2(b): Jzerro, that miserable dog
    "your logic defies logic", May 10
  • Part 3: Jzerro; She's All Wet May 10
  • comments: May 24
    a disservice to those really interested in proas, Stay tuned for more, stiffening of the beams, the hull flying, Jzerro did not fail as a boat, overtake waves when running, water ballast, solid water on the deck, anything but academic, "constantly" meaning regularly
  • Part 4: Those Islanders; What Where They Thinking? May 24
  • comments: May 25
    did not have to shift ballast frequently on Jzerro, method of determining RM, adding to higher levels of normal stress on the beams, excess RM can be as much of a problem as too little, it is futile and is simply to reply to utter nonsense
  • repetitious and conscious deceptions
    Sep 8, 2011
  • Rob, get real. 18 point reply Sep 8, 2011
  • beam loads Sep 10, 2011
  • freedom 20 masts Sep 26, 2011
  • so long ProaFile Sep 26, 2011

    If Rob Denney applied the same logic and technical rigor to his designs as he has to both the historical record and my writings about Russell Brown and his proas, Denney's boats would not even float. I've read a number of Denny's criticisms of Brown's boats, many of which he rests on partial quotes by me taken completely out of context, such as a reference to my mention of an "achilles heel" of Brown's rig. He also extrapolates wildly, creating conclusions that are the opposite of my intentions and reality. Those interested in the complete context of my actual sentiments are welcome to look at a feature article I authored for Cruising World magazine in 2000 about a voyage Russell Brown and I made from San Francisco to Tahiti. Denney seems forever desperate to latch onto something to criticize Newick, Brown, and other true proa pioneers, and small snippets like the noted partial quote by me seems about the closest he might find. He sought no clarification from me, and appears to have done everything in his power to use supposition to destroy what I think would be the obvious deep respect and admiration I have for Russell and his marvelous craft, which would have been more than evident to any reasonable person who read my entire piece. One could just as easily lift other elements of the piece that candidly explore the many concerns about proas to conclude that no proa has any future, which also is the opposite of my intent. It reminds me that rationalization in its worst sense is the process of cherry picking one or a few tiny truths to mix with misinformation (or while ignoring other truths) in order to create a large lie. It is unfortunate when people are less often interested in the truth than what they need to believe, especially when the truth conflicts with their own emotional needs, dogma, and/or business interests. For the record, I have never met or spoken with Mr. Denney. I see no evidence that he has any direct experience with Brown's proas. But I have. So let me set the record straight.

    First, some context. I met Russell in 1982 and have since sailed with him some on the east coast on his 36-foot proa Kauri, as well as in Baha on the new Jzerro and then on the passage to Tahiti. I'd been interested in proas since Newick's Cheers, created for the 1968 OSTAR. I drew a few of my own versions beginning in 1975, built one small super-cheap proa in 1976, and knew a number of people creating and sailing other proas on the east coast, including Dick Newick and John Ashworth. I knew Nick Clifton and Rory Nugent who both owned Newick Atlantic-style proas that sadly ended in capsize, and some of the later owners of all of Brown's boats. I observed Clifton's boat closely when he raced it to Bermuda (I on another boat). I've been involved with multihulls since 1968 when I had a high-school job helping to build a 40-foot Harris trimaran, and have since built or refit several other multihulls and/or their major components, have designed several other multis built in the States and abroad, and have sailed scores of multis from many of the world's leading designers, which includes numerous offshore passages on boats from 28 to 56 feet beginning in 1974. I have a degree in small-craft naval architecture and authored a short text on multihull design for Yacht Design Institute where I was lead instructor from 1982 to 1984 when we completed developing an accredited degree program (eventually sold to Maine Maritime Academy). As sailor, marine journalist, builder, associate, and/or friend, I've been blessed to be able to pick the brains of such talents as Dick Newick, Jim Brown, Derkek Kelsall, John Shuttleworth, Nigel Irens, Jim Antrim, Rodger Hatfield, Norm Cross, Walter Greene, and Gino Morelli, among others, many of whom I've known for decades. I'd put Russel Brown firmly in that company, though he's the last to want to blow his own horn or even promote his own designs. I would not claim to be an expert on proa design. I only know that every single boat is an individual with its own personality, and the way boats behave precisely, even those based on the same concept, can vary widely, especially as size and conditions change.

    Perhaps the most succinct and precise conclusion I have ever heard about boat design came from Nigel Irens who told me once that he loved designing race boats because "you can't argue with the finish line." Expanded in concept, that means you can BS all you want but what actually happens is what matters, not some armchair analysis. That armchair analysis has led Denney to conclude wrongly, among other things, that a) only one of Brown's proas has "done some sea miles," b) that the mast will fall down in a gybe, c) that there is no room inside, d) that "you have to spend a significant amount of time lugging ballast back and forth in puffy conditions, or sail it slowly," e) that Brown's boats don't sail upwind, f) that he has suffered numerous structural failures, and g) his boats are dangerous "because of the pod which in extreme weather would give the boat something to trip over turning a knock down into a capsize."

    Original JZERO - February 2009
    Christiansted, St. Croix,
    photo by Steven Callahan

    First, I ask, what other living person has had more direct experience designing, building, or sailing proas than Russell Brown? Perhaps some ancient mariners had more, but in the modern world, I know of none. Brown was one of the first modern western designers to re-approach the traditional Pacific style proa, building his first at age 14, some 32 years ago in a proa-information near-vacuum. His boats have since plied the waters from Caribbean up the east coast to Maine (several times) and out as far as Bermuda. Even that first little Jzero, a $400 quickie sheet-plywood box with a used Star rig, sailed from Virginia to the Caribbean, and I see no evidence that it has not done more miles to date than any Denney proa. It also amazed pretty much everybody by snapping at the heels of such boats as the 60-foot trimaran Rogue Wave during the lengthy St. Martin's Tradewind Race. And Rogue Wave was no slouch to weather. His boats routinely pass much larger racing cats and tris when pushed, both upwind and down. On the west coast, his newest Jzerro has sailed from British Columbia to Baha and back (a particularly rough trip often consigned to delivery crews) before being the only proa–that's right, the only proa–to have crossed the entire Pacific (unless some ancient did it and that record is lost to time–there is no evidence of such). The only other proas I know of that have crossed any ocean include two large boats in the Pacific, one of which broke up, and one large Pacific proa across the Atlantic, and perhaps two or a few Atlantic-style proas across the Atlantic. Many have failed and been lost. His boats have weathered gales up to 50 knots. Brown's first Jzero may have suffered from a breakdown or two, but I know of no designer worth his or her salt who has not suffered failures, and this was the first boat designed and built by a guy barely in his teens for next to nothing, and which was fixed easily and went on sailing. Bottom line is that all his boats are still sailing. I know of no other failures of note. No broken cross arms. No lost rigs. Nothing, unless you count something like a broken halyard (using Mr Denney's logic, perhaps we should condemn all line halyards because they have been known to fail, and while we're at it, let's get rid of sails, steering systems, rudders, etc.). Brown's boats are extremely weatherly for multihulls. Let's not forget that weatherliness is dependent on a good deal more than pure pointing ability, though his boats do point pretty high.

    In contrast, I see no evidence that Mr. Denney's boats have suffered more than the most benign conditions at sea, nor have they succeeded in making any notable voyages. I may be wrong. Still, until such time as Mr. Denney can claim even a tenth of Brown's success, or at least has direct experience with Brown's boats, I see no reason to put any stock at all into his criticisms. I wonder why he is so keen to trash Russell's boats. I know many, many talented sailors and designers with direct experience with Russell's boats who respect Russ Brown and would simply dismiss Denny's unfounded claims. In general, I am very wary of folks who claim their own genius and the superiority of its creations while trashing those with obviously deeper experience.

    As for my comment about the weakest link of Brown's rig, a reasonable reader would recognize that I was writing for a lay sailing audience about a pioneering voyage on an unusual craft. No one in modern times had attempted to take a less-than two-ton proa so far offshore before, and anyone with any substantial sea time knows there is plenty to worry about with any boat on such a voyage, not to mention a boat type with which modern sailors have so little experience. Also, although I'd sailed Brown's boats before, I was still a relative neophyte. The piece is written from my view as a worrywort who has suffered nearly every kind of breakdown and problem offshore, not Brown's, who was much more at home and had seen quite difficult conditions on this boat before. What is clear throughout the article is that I view Jzerro as a very strong design. I pointed out that, as prudent sailors, we should worry about getting caught aback in the conditions of the time, because the geometry of the rig might not be sufficient to support the mast in a flying gybe. The conditions included strong winds and significant wave height of about 3 or more meters. After 40 years of passagemaking and confirming wave-height estimates with official reports, I typically underestimate wave height and do not simply use the highest wave I can find. Rather, I average roughly two-thirds of largest waves and guage height from known eye above water relative to the horizon. It's usually easy to get your eye 8 to 12 feet above water, and after some years you can fairly well guesstimate larger waves, but these were easily measured. In such conditions, I would be equally concerned about broaching and gybing in any boat–I repeat, any boat, especially during the early stages of a voyage, which this was. Generally, Brown's rig geometry is similar to the swept-back shrouds on a normal stayed rig, which usually but is not always backed up with running backstays. As it turned out, we had no reason to worry, and these splayed out fore and back stays quite easily kept the rig up even when we ended up laying ahull in stiff squalls with the ama and rig caught on the wrong side.

    All Russell's proas except the first Jzero have enjoyed beautiful interiors with sufficient cabins for comfortable cruising, in my view, including double berths, standing headroom, small galley, etc. When "sizing up" a boat, it is best to consider things like weight as well as length. Brown's boats tend to choose greater sailing efficiency over packing maximum accommodation into a short length. Although the boat can be very fast and may even get wet on deck, especially in big waves and to weather in a chop, I've also sailed in the teens onboard many times while staying dry. Bottom line: the boat is hardly slow. In fact it is one of the fastest multihulls for its size I've ever sailed. It is not always wet, as Denney has stated. It goes upwind like a champ.

    As for the safety and ballasting, Denney again makes statements that purposely distort reality. I never wrote that we had to continually take ballast out or add it to the ama or sail slowly. In fact, we rarely did either. The boat never sailed slowly, highly ballasted or not. We adjusted not for speed but to ease the motion of the ama. As waves pass the ama, reaching or upwind, the ama may be left hanging in the air for a moment before coming down. It's the re-entry that creates the most motion in the boat. The more I've sailed Russell's proas, the more confident I've become in their stability. The point is that a heavy hull to weather, in my view, is much worse than a light one, which runs counter to Denney's entire design approach, not Brown's. A big, heavy, stubby hull to weather appears a complete disaster to me, but again, I have not sailed a Denney boat, so maybe some miracle makes it work better than it looks. I've seen no evidence except that the Brown pod is superbly proportioned. Rarely does it touch the water, and when Russell drives the boat to the edge for fun, when it does hit, it slides along without fuss. There's zero evidence it has ever or would trip up the boat. His big boats have never capsized offshore.

    The bottom line here is that I do not, definitively do not, believe Russell's design is inferior in any way to Denney's approach. Quite the opposite. I walked away from this trip prizing it as one of the best voyages I ever made on one of the best craft. We had a ball, despite Denney's absolutist claim it was miserable and slow. We often slowed the boat just to ease motion (on such a tiny craft, this is hardly unreasonable) and enhance our journey overall. Frankly, the Marquesas arrived all too soon for my taste. Speed is only one element of sailing. Of course, sailing can be great fun on a boat like Jzerro as well, and we often spent long hours surfing and flying along. We could have made the passage faster, but simply chose not to. The whole point of the article is that voyaging can be done and enjoyed on small, simple craft, and that it can be enhanced by sticking to basics, no relying on complex systems or hauling one's whole apartment around. To criticize Jzerro for not being a floating condo is like criticizing a Porche for not being a mini-van. I've gained immense confidence in Jzerro over time. In fact, I now firmly believe that this modernized version of the original Pacific approach to proas is THE best, with numerous advantages over Atlantic style boats. The real magic of "flying" proas has to do with their unique configuration that allows them to reduce loads on the structure and resistance through the water as force on the sails build, something impossible for monohulls, cats, tris, and other proa configurations. A major reason why Atlantic proas have capsized is that they build even more stability than comparable cats, but then, if caught aback, have minimal stability. The Brown approach begins with maximum stability to which the crew adjusts sails to maximize efficiently as loads come off the structure. If caught aback, the boat has oodles more stability.

    I will not conclude that Brown's proas could not be improved. Russell would not bother either. We share a desire to always move forward. Then, as now, we often discuss design evolution–altering ama shapes, enhancing the rig, etc. But these are refinements. We're not talking about any need to rethink any aspect of his design completely. I've never written, designed, or sailed anything without noting the possibility for improvement. Woe be to those who feel they have reached the ultimate answer. Brown and I both recognize that everything entails compromise. Could one create a mast that would never fail? Yes, but it would be extremely heavy, creating problems that could be even more devastating than a possible loss of rig. Also, a wise designer always chooses what would fail first. The rig should fail before the basic structure in my view. Is the ballestron rig a solution? Yes, but it, too, has weaknesses. For one, it is way heavier than a stayed solution. Weight aloft is critical in a multi. At the least, it aggravates pitching, a major challenge to all multis, especially proas, and a factor that easily can contribute significantly to dangers such as pitchpoling. The ballestron's geometric limitations and large-diameter mast also limit sail efficiency. Brown's rig offers great versatility. One can easily drop the rig for inspection or maintenance without outside assistance. The rotating mast is efficient yet remains light. Sailors can set different headsails to best suit light airs and offwind efficiency. During days of extreme light air in the doldrums, under a beautiful asymmetrical chute, Jzerro averaged wind speed on course, though we actually tacked through large angles downwind. The ballestron rig just doesn't compare, and I know of zero race results on any type of craft that indicate otherwise, including on such boats as Elf Aquitaine during the 1984 singlehanded transatlantic in which such hopes for even a wing-masted carbon version were trounced by reality.

    From the safety of my armchair, I could rip apart Denney's designs and point out that I'd pause significantly before setting offshore on one, but why not let his boats speak for themselves when they are in a position to. It will be very interesting to see how they actually do in real conditions when people really begin taking them distances. For their owners, I only hope they can live up to his claims. I do, however, worry about such claims. Arthur Piver also made similarly superlative claims about trimarans that "could not capsize," but when reality struck, such claims did the field of multihulls much more harm then good, and it took decades to recover from them. For now, I would only say, Brown's Jzerro ranks among the most perfected dozen or so boats I have sailed out of hundreds I've sailed over the last 40+ years (measured subjectively as how well the design overall and all its components are coordinated to achieve a design criteria). Denney's boats remain, at best, a possibility. His rhetoric not only insults Brown but does damage to the clear intent of my writing, actual multihull history, and direct offshore experience.

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