This year it’s exactly 30 years ago that I began to develop the waterwing. Since September last year I’m going to school again, to the Art College in Limerick, 39 years after I began as a self-taught sculptor in wood. Rather a bit the other way around, but making sense all the same. And a lot more than that!
My experience and numerous inventions and adaptions turn out to be a treasure trove that easily balances the digital skills of my largely fledgling fellow students.
Before Christmas we were assigned to do a project on the concept of ‘Place’. Mine was to recreate the living space of my van. It became a warm interpretation of the rather Spartan original. I have installed many of my brain children and fine tunes, but refurbished in a flamboyant, yet easy-going ambience. The frame and other hardware were made by tech Nikki, the panels I made from the cardboard of my dialysis boxes to emphasize the make-shift nature of my survival.
The quilt I composed with textile donations from fellow students,
the outside was urbanised by Cormac and his graffiti club and the ceiling consisted of a white cloth on top of which my dolphin video’s were projected, so you could lay down on the bed and watch Dusty swim across the sky providing an inside oceanic atmosphere.
After the assessment my project was selected to be rebuilt at the first-year exhibition in the school gallery, a beautiful former church.
From January we could elect three disciplines in order to after make an informed definite choice. I went for photography, sculpture and print. For me photography was a mixture of old news and way too fast explanations of Photoshop. I will revisit that in a dummy’s edition. Print was an interesting experience which I only followed for a week as after that I went to Holland for a week. Sculpture was my natural choice. The theme was ‘I am a monument’. If for one thing I want to make history it’s with my WaterWing. But that got me into problems right away. We only had two weeks and the last, the Humpback wing I made took the entire winter of 2008/2009. Also we were supposed to explore a variety of materials. Soon I found that for a subject I have been experimenting with for 30 years it is not easy to devise a new angle. The first week went from slow to desperate. I cut a few variations on the Humpback wing out of cardboard, doodled a bit with firm plastic, but on the whole I very much disappointed myself. I watched the recommended artists on YouTube, but there was no soul food for me to be found. One of the tutors, Amanda, mentioned Dorothy Cross and she ignited my interest. Dorothy lives not so far from the meadow, in Connemara, also on the edge of Galway Bay and I recognised her fascination by the ocean as my own.
I drove back to Lisdoonvarna that Friday and that night I had a massive ’stand up’ dream. Cut out figures kept rising and I thoroughly enjoyed my dream. When I woke up in my good old own bed and the sluice doors of sleep hadn’t quite closed, I got a terrific idea for a whole new type of waterwing. Only that was already nothing short of sensational! I wondered if I was an ultimate genius or a total idiot for not having seen this before. Actually I can only be happy when I want something to do and that now I had. On the usual random pieces of loose paper, old envelops and other writable nooks and crannies that weekend my idea unfolded and it has been evolving, changing, adjusting and taking stronger shape until this very day. And though everything is still a purely paper theory a rudimentary strategy is growing on me.
In the second week I asked Nikki to make a basic and very flexible waterwing and covered it with latex to see how this influenced the flexibility. I also wrote a number of entries pertaining to my idea on my Tumbler school blog, https://www.tumblr.com/blog/jan-ploeg-blog. This article is a resume and a continuation of that.
For this I first have to go back to my Humpback waterwing. This wing suits me excellent and that has actually been an ‘obstacle’ for further development. There is only one substantial drawback to it, its weight. Above water it is rather heavy and in the water, though it just floats this weight has to be set in motion.
Since its genesis I have given this a lot of consideration. Initially I thought that to weigh it down so it would just float should be done at the wings tips. Then I would not have to waste energy against its buoyancy and in case of emergency I could find it back at the surface. It was a very elaborate process to find the right balance and after many unsuccessful attempts I just grabbed a weight belt, put a 2 kilo piece of lead on it and wrapped it around the handle, in the middle. That was a revelation and on reflection pretty logical. When turning it around I did not have to set the weight at the extremes in motion, but the wing was easily maneuverable around the weight in the center. That was a major improvement,
But for the total weight I ran into the following impasse. The leading edge must have a rounded edge of at least 4 cm diameter, otherwise it will ‘bite’ and is hard to steer up and down, hindering a fluent undulation. That minimal thickness is mandatory. Another fixed given is that it should just float, meaning its volume should just be a little less than the volume of water it displaces, according to Archimedes. Therefor it doesn’t make any difference if I use a lighter material as then I just have to put more lead on. The only theoretical possibility is to reduce the volume from the thickest point towards the trailing edge. To make this thinner would affect the streamline and cause drag.
I then played with the idea to substitute a part of the stretch behind the thickest point with a flexible sheet on both sides. The water would then have free access inside. But the water inside would also have to be set in motion and its weight would add even more than the weight of the wood. This consideration stayed on the shelf for eight years also because the wing itself was such an improvement.
My original idea departed from the double flex(ible plate), with the difference that I thought the ’trapped’ water to flow through. A Gore-tex kind of valve would let it in and it would flow out at the rear of the flexes. What was new in this vision was that a third flex in the middle would act as a piston, squeezing out water at the pushing side of the flexes and letting in water at the hollow side. I did doubt, however, if the squeezed out bit of water would be strong enough to contribute to any thrust. Also I doubted the sufficient influx of ‘inside water’.
The next step was to facilitate the plentiful influx of water. That changed my original lay-out into a ‘double decker’. The inner blade would be hinged so it would shut off the squeezed chamber and allow the water to flow into the hollow chamber. But I still doubted if the squeezed out water would make a whole lot of difference.
I virtually removed the inner flex and tried to imagine the water freely flowing through the double decker. Then I imagined the inside of the wings and the continuing flexes to be tapering. How would this water behave?
Then I hit upon the Bernoulli effect. When water flows through a pipe of a certain diameter into a connecting pipe of a smaller diameter, the pressure in the smaller pipe will be less, but the flow will be accelerated. So in a funneled intake the output would be faster. I can imagine that the greater the difference in diameter, the harder it will become to move the mouth through the water. But also the faster it will squirt out of the rear. I don’t think this in itself would contribute to the thrust. I might be able to increase the intake by hollowing out the mouth of the double decker, but I have a little more confidence in deploying the Venturi effect. This would entail making holes halfway the taper so the outside water is sucked in by the lower pressure of the onrushing water within. This can even be increased by drilling the holes at an angle towards the oncoming water. This way more water exits at the rear than is taken in at the ‘mouth’ and this would give it thrust or at least diminishes the resistance of the wing. Both flexes should not meet at the trailing edge as that would ‘lock up’ the water. If I imagine correctly a stream of water would fan into a complex of vortices caused by the passage of my body that would lend a push-off for the impact of the outflux of through water.
So far for the theory. The first test that comes to my mind would be to drag a funnel through water, particularly with the narrow end above the water to see if and how far the water is squeezed out. This might help in determining the most effective ratio between in- and outflux diameter. The next step would be drilling a few holes in the narrow end and see how this affects the flow. Then it may be interesting to try out the concept in wooden beaker shapes to be turned on the lathe and drilled with angled holes in the narrow part.
If this set up would deliver, then it might very well be worthwhile to consider a comparable construction of the monofin.