Crew Blog | Darren Kamalu: The Physics of Raising the Mast

Written by Darren Kamalu

Ma ka hana ka ʻike
Information is absorbed by studying books and listening to teachers.
Lessons are learned by applying the information in real life. 

On board Hōkūleʻa, the crew learns complex physics concepts through hands-on training.  In Indian Harbor, Nainoa Thompson walked the crew through the difficult and dangerous task of raising and lowering the masts while teaching them the salient principles of torque and static equilibrium that must be understood to safely complete the task.

Dropping the mizzen mast

Dropping the mizzen mast

Without ever needing to use the specific terminology, the crew was taught to understand by things like:

  • Torque – a force applied to an object causing it to rotate (the mast).
  • Fulcrum – the pivot point about which an object rotates (the base of the mast).
  • Lever Arm – the distance from the fulcrum to the point of the applied force.
  • Center of Mass – the location where an object can be balanced by applying a force to offset gravity.
  • Normal Forces – the forces applied by the deck and the mast housing.
  • Tension – the forces applied by the ropes.
  • Mechanical Advantage – the increased force available through a pulley system used while raising the mast.
  • Moment of Inertia – a measure of the difficulty encountered when attempting to rotate and object about a given axis.
  • Static Equilibrium – the balancing of forces and torques to hold an object in place.
  • Stable and Unstable Equilibrium – the tendency of an object to break free from static equilibrium.

All of these concepts are taught in physics classes and can take weeks or months (maybe years) to grasp when there is no real world application.  On Hōkūleʻa, the crew understood the ideas in short order because of the quality of the lesson and the patience of the teacher coupled with the understanding of the importance of the task and that sometimes you have to get it right on the first try.

After all, the sails don’t go up and the waʻa doesn’t go unless the masts are raised.

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