Friday, January 30th, 2009
By Janie Southard
The physics of boat building
Local professor's students to build light boats for race on Grand Lake
  The goal is to build a flimsy, yet safe and seaworthy, boat to sail on Grand Lake . The vision is that a group of these safe flimsies will be built for a summer race on the lake.
Both the goal and the vision are those of Wright State University Lake Campus Assistant Professor of Physics Guy Vandegrift, who thought up the whole thing to interest his students and maybe some like-minded wanna-be area boat builders.
"I'm pretty sure there are people around with woodworking skills who could come up with wonderful boats once they have the (basic construction) information," says the professor who's looking at a nice backyard-built boat for about $500.
As to the eventual summer race, Vandegrift explained his idea was not exactly a race against each other. "Not exactly, but it could be that. Really I think of it as a good way to measure your progress and the (design) of the boat," he says.
To begin at the beginning, the professor's background in plasma physics prompted an experiment involving waves in an aquarium. "I found that very interesting personally but I noticed my students lacked enthusiasm ... And frankly the experiment was also of little interest to the scientific community," he says alluding to every professor's bugaboo, publish or perish.
So he changed direction and hit on homebuilt sailboats, which quickly evolved into homebuilt sailing barges, such as the barges on the Thames River in London. This has provided a wealth of experiments for his students to sift through to get to a thin, light craft that doesn't sink, according to student Amanda Spray of St. Marys.
"If you run over a stick, for instance, and get a hole in the boat, at least you won't sink. You can get back to shore," explained Spray, who is working toward a degree in medicine. "Plus there would be oars."
Vandegrift elaborated that his basic idea is to use enough Styrofoam to float the boat as well as perform well if the hull is ruptured by a leak or collision. His classroom currently features several experiments involving water. (He terms these small experiments "messabouts.") A couple small tanks contain chunks of Styrofoam of varying quality in experiments to learn how long it takes to soak up the water.
In a written explanation Vandegrift says success with Styrofoam would "permit the use of very thin plywood" thus keeping the boat very light in weight, which translates to more speed and less cost.
But how to be able to use enough Styrofoam so that lightweight plywood can be used. Vandegrift's solution is a box-shaped barge which more easily enables blocks of Styrofoam to be packed.
"I added curved bow and stern sections to give the boat a somewhat attractive appearance," Vandegrift says.
Running downwind, a sailing barge should perform as well as any sailboat. "But, with the brown poly tarp square sails, it will take a lot of patience and skill to sail against the wind," he says. However, the optimist professor believes a long journey across Grand Lake will make it seem a larger body of water.
Although physicists don't typically come to mind when one thinks of smooth-talking sales-types, Vandegrift has had success is his recruiting of student workers. Alex Service of Van Wert was in a calculus II class when the professor stopped and posed a question.
"It had to do with figuring out the best weight distribution without sinking the boat. I thought that would be an interesting thing to figure out," says Service, claiming no real technical skills although he once built a catapult for a science project.
For this project and the vision for a Grand Lake race of homebuilt boats, the professor assures everything to build the boat could be purchased at local hardware/lumber stores.
"My barge won't look very nice, but I think there are a lot of (woodwork hobbyists) in the area who could turn out a bit more fancy boat," Vandegrift says.
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