Current Affairs

Is it possible to sail on a river on a windless day? In Why Cats Land on Their Feet (2012), Mark Levi points out that the answer is yes, at least in principle. If the keel is turned broadly against the current, then this will carry the boat downstream, drawing the sail through the still air. Now the roles of the sail and the keel are reversed: The keel catches the motion of the river, acting as a sail, and the boat follows the course established by the sail, which acts as a keel. “It’s just like regular sailing,” Levi writes, “except upside down.”

That’s from the point of view of an observer on shore. In the boat’s reference frame, the water is still and a wind is blowing upstream. From this perspective the boat is sailing conventionally — the sail is catching the wind and the keel slices through the water.

“This is a neat symmetry,” Levi notes. “The sail and the keel exchange roles, depending on your reference frame! So the sail and the keel have completely equal rights in that respect.”