All Hands on Deck for Boat Building

Prof. Simon Penny, photo by Liz Kuball (c) Alta

by Gustavo Arellano, Alta

With his proto-Fu Manchu mustache, bright eyes, salt-and-pepper hair, sporty brown vest and Australian accent, Simon Penny seems like he should be a BBC documentarian.

But he’s actually a UC Irvine professor. And a boatbuilder. And the boat he’s building is not just some pleasure craft.

For the past two years, Penny has been constructing — from scratch — a modern-day version of a proa, the Micronesian outrigger boat renowned in the sailing world for its dexterity and speed.

“To call them ‘canoes’ is a misnomer,” Penny says excitedly. “We’re not talking a kayak here. It’s the craft that humans explored a third of the planet in. We forget this. The colonial narrative is that the Micronesians just were blown to other islands. But they knew where they were going. These are humans, right?”

He has named the boat Orthogonal, and he describes the project as “a case study in decolonialized, sustainable design practice.”

The purpose is threefold: build a proa to teach Americans about a disappearing boatbuilding tradition; try building a classic seacraft with modern-day materials like fiberglass skin; then hope his prototype spurs an environmentally friendly seafaring revolution.