Invention on the Breeze

Through new technology, the convenience of a motoryacht meets the zero-impact silent operation of a sailing vessel.
carbon-fiber airfoil wing rendering
Outsail offers an innovative approach to harnessing the wind: a carbon-fiber airfoil wing. Courtesy Outsail

In the 1550s, a three-masted ship-rigged vessel was the pinnacle of sailing technology. In the almost 475 years since, aerodynamic advances have sped things up a bit, allowing sailing vessels to go farther faster and with less dependence on fair winds.

Enter California-based startup Outsail, which, at the recent Düsseldorf International Boat Show, debuted an innovative approach to harnessing the wind: a carbon-fiber airfoil wing. The wing will stand 98 feet tall aboard an Outsail 60 catamaran, which will be the first cruising yacht to employ the technology. The wing is concealed within a box through tape-spring technology—a metallic strip similar to what is used in satellites for low mass, low cost, and overall simplicity.  

According to Outsail founder and CEO Arpan Rau, the Outsail 60 is a CE-class yacht that can cruise using only the energy of the sun and wind. Unlike a conventional sailing yacht, it will be able to travel at any angle relative to the wind, and compute its own optimal route. However, like a conventional catamaran, it will also have many conveniences of powerboating—minus the noise and fuel burn that come with diesel engines.

Rau, a robotics engineer who has designed flight hardware for NASA and SpaceX, is a self-described addict when it comes to the force of wind. His casual interests range from paragliding to sailing. He says that there are three pillars of wingsail technology: to provide useful thrust while sailing nearly directly into the wind; to provide useful propulsion at vessel speeds that turn other sails into parachutes; and to work hand-in-hand with an engine, enabling new forms of hybrid propulsion.

Though, according to Rau, the most important pillar of the wingsail’s performance is planning software.

“We found that by using clever software, our wind-powered vessels can plan routes that keep them powered for their entire journey,” Rau says. “They could decide, for example, when it made sense to power through a high-pressure zone using their electric motors, and when to skirt around and save energy for later.”

Outsail recently closed a seed round of funding from Silicon Valley investors, including Y Combinator, which has helped to launch more than 4,000 companies since it was founded in 2005. Those companies include Airbnb, Doordash, Instacart, Dropbox and Reddit. 

Additional investors in the recent seed round of funding for Outsail include Climate Capital, which focuses its investments on emissions reduction and climate adaptation; Venture Hacks Fund, which was an investor in Twitter; and Collab Fund, whose previous investments include Beyond Meat, Daily Harvest, Kickstarter, Lyft, The Farmer’s Dog and TaskRabbit.  

According to Rau, Outsail’s ultimate goal is to apply technology in the maritime industry—not just in cruising yachts, but also with container shipping and defense—to reduce the amount of diesel fuel being burned. Outsail is currently working with shipyards such as Conrad and Alva on custom-build projects.