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The Art of Diminished Resistance

Tom Wylie wants to change the way ocean researchers commute to work

By Steve Hawk

Tom Wylie
Tom Wylie in the workshop adjacent to his Canyon, California, home. The model in the foreground is of a Wyliecat 44. | Photo by Mitch Tobias

We were about an hour beyond the Golden Gate Bridge when the dive boat with the shark cage passed by, twin engines straining to speed its load of thrill seekers to the feeding grounds. Behind us, the sky waned from sunrise pink to marine-layer gray.

The morning was windless, so our sailboat, the Derek M. Baylis, motored along at about 9 knots, less than half of the craft's top speed in a steady breeze. The two white-shark researchers who'd chartered the vessel napped in bunks below, and no one else aboard seemed envious that the dive boat would reach the shark-infested Farallon Islands ahead of us. If anything, the crew was proud to be cruising in a ship that was slower, quieter, prettier, and above all, better for the planet.

Standing at the wheel, skipper James Fahlbusch estimated that our sleek 65-foot ketch would burn only 10 gallons of diesel during the day's 60-mile round-trip, even without a boost from the wind. The 54-foot diving boat would burn about 60 gallons, no matter how the wind blew.
As it so often does aboard the Baylis, talk quickly turned to the ship's architect and co-owner, Tom Wylie. In the world of high-end sailboat design, Wylie is known for creating elegant and speedy racers as well as for railing against the fuel-guzzling inefficiency of powerboats big and small. He's particularly appalled by marine researchers who plod into sensitive habitats on decommissioned warships, a practice he likens to "roaring into the rainforest in a Hummer to study butterflies."

Wylie has been called the "John Muir of the sea," and he can talk nonstop about how he hopes to slow global warming by greening watercraft worldwide. His quest centers on the concept of diminished resistance, which is key to making boats that knife through water.

"A research vessel doesn't need to carry much weight," Wylie said in a dockside interview not long after the day trip to the Farallons. "It's almost like a yacht that way. It carries provisions and individuals and some odds and ends. You might have a Jet Ski, but the toys, relative to thousands of barrels of oil, are lightweight. So you design a boat that doesn't go so deep in the water. Why? Less resistance. Why? Smaller engines, smaller cost to build, smaller cost to operate."
When he began designing the Baylis in 1999, Wylie sought to create a craft with the hydrodynamics of a racing sailboat and the functionality of a barge. The boat's rear transom is wide and detachable, and its deck is riddled with bolt holes, enabling crew members to secure and easily deploy a wide range of equipment—something that can't be done on most sailboats. During our trip, the deck was outfitted with a sliding trailer bearing a skiff for the shark researchers.

Fahlbusch and two other skippers (out for a shakedown tour) said they were especially impressed by the ship's freestanding, tapered, carbon fiber masts, whose flexibility eliminates the need to furl the sails in high wind. "When a gust comes up, the boat doesn't lean over—it accelerates," Fahlbusch said. The simplified rigging makes the Baylis easy to sail, and the boat is allowed to run charters of up to 49 people with only a skipper and a single crew member aboard.

As it turned out, the tourists on the dive boat did beat us to the islands that morning, and arrived in time to witness what shark experts call a "feeding event." But our scientists—Salvador Jorgensen of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and renowned white-shark researcher Scot Anderson—shrugged off the missed opportunity. Jorgensen and Anderson have seen scores of seals get mauled over the years, and their primary goal these days is to attach transmitters to as many sharks as possible. To that end, they spent the day in the skiff, trolling for the big fish with a lure resembling a seal silhouette. One shark eventually rose to the bait, but it was an old acquaintance, already tagged, that Anderson had nicknamed "Tip Fin" 12 years ago.

On the way back to San Francisco Bay that afternoon, Jorgensen listed off the things that impress him most about the Baylis: its customizable deck, its strong but ultralight construction, its "slippery" hull design, its minimalist rigging. "It's a real honor to be a part of this," he said, waving an arm to encompass the entirety of the ship. "It's revolutionary."

Steve Hawk is Sierra's executive editor.

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