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.
You’re probably thinking Kon-Tiki; Penny begs you not to. “Thor [Heyerdahl],” he says, referring to the sailor and author who crossed the Pacific in a balsawood raft in 1947, “got it completely wrong!”
Penny’s 30-foot boat is starting to take shape in an outdoor workshop on the UC Irvine campus. “You guys can get the gussets bonded in later next week,” Penny tells two students helping him build the craft. “Good job!”
The workshop is chockablock with cans of varnish, planks of various sizes, and ropes tied into assorted knots. Sophomore Sean Wang installs a shelf inside the boat’s nearly finished hull; his friend works on the planks with a sander, its loud buzz drowned out by the indie rock blasting from a nearby KUCI 89.9 FM trailer. Penny moves between the boat, his volunteers and a storage room as he scarfs down a foil-wrapped burrito and talks animatedly about the project.
It’s a seemingly unlikely effort for Penny, even though he has sailed most of his life. The 62-year-old is a pioneer in the study and practice of digital arts, with works touching on everything from robotics to videos to sensors to sculptures and more. A blurb for his latest book, “Making Sense: Cognition, Computing, Art, and Embodiment” (published last year by MIT Press), praises Penny for “lucidly distinguishing the past era of integrative cybernetics from today’s stealthy computationalist AI paradigm.”
OK, so he’s a scholar. But that deep dive into computers made Penny yearn for the tactile. “I was trying to make interactive experiences with people, but technology didn’t want to do that,” he said. “Fundamental to the computer world is that the matter is dumb, and the information is smart. I reject that. I needed to get back to making things.”
Fifteen years ago, Penny read a book with a chapter on Micronesian navigation, which piqued the theoretical, artistic and practical elements of his personality. It made him realize the Pacific Islanders were sophisticated about seafaring in a way Westerners never fully acknowledged.
But over the years, other projects got in the way of what he ultimately deems “a sculpture to sail.” Now, however, he’s fully committed to Orthogonal. Last fall, Penny organized a two-day conference at UC Irvine on Pacific seafaring that featured films, master crafters and navigators, plus a visit to Penny’s proa project. He then traveled to Yap, a western island of the Federated States of Micronesia, to learn from traditional boatbuilders.
“Their craft is precise. It’s a highly intellectual pursuit,” he says. “With a string, they measure one tree that they can then [use to] create multiple boats of different sizes, but all the same scale. And they build without nails, or screws. Just coconut-fiber rope!”
The professor puts in twice-weekly sweat equity alongside a rotating cast of interns, mostly engineering majors. “They get flummoxed when I ask them to create a flat surface and a pole, and they run to their calculators and computers,” he says, a twinkle in his eye. “And I say, ‘No. We’re going to do something in the world.’ They’re presented with situations that they never imagined they had to solve. Like, how do you hold wooden parts when the glue is drying?”
Next up: finding a place to move Orthogonal near the coast so Penny can put it in the Pacific for sea trials, “to see if it’ll even float,” he says with a laugh. “We don’t know if it’s going to work, and we don’t even know if it’ll break …” He stops for a second. “It’ll break. There’s a thousand ways that it can fail, and I’ve thought of 850 of them.”
After that? “I don’t know what’s next,” he confesses. He’d like to create a fleet of proas for scientists to use to research the Pacific. At the very least, he wants to sail Orthogonal to Catalina. “It’s possible,” Penny says as his students pack up for the day, “that it may have a use.”