Sailboat racing

toy sailboat

Sail out on the open seas – or perhaps in your backyard! For this experiment, you will design and race different boats to determine the ultimate sailboat design.

What you need

  • Styrofoam
  • Construction paper
  • BBQ skewers
  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • Kiddy pool, large bin, or bathtub
  • A hose (if you’re outside)
  • Pencil and paper
  • Stopwatch

Safety first!

Adult supervision may be needed when handling scissors or BBQ skewers. Young children should not be left unattended near pools of water.

Make it

  1. Fill your bathtub, pool, or bin up with water close to the rim. We recommend that you do this outside!
  2. Come up with three different boat designs, using the Styrofoam as the hull (the base), and the construction paper and dowels for the sails. Draw them out for reference. Experiment with the shape and sizes of both the hull and the sail.
  3. Cut out the hull shapes for your first boat out of Styrofoam. Get adult help if needed!
  4. Cut out the shape of your sail from the construction paper.
  5. Cut any dowels you need to size.
  6. Build your boat! Use the pointed end of the dowel to stick into the Styrofoam as your main mast.
  7. Repeat steps 2-6 for the other two designs.
  8. Make a prediction: which boat do you think will be fastest? Which will be slowest?

Test it

Put your first boat to the test! Line it up at the edge of your pool or bin. Start your stopwatch, and then continuously blow on it as hard as you can. How long did it take to cross the whole way? Repeat this with your two other boats. Which one was the fastest? What was better about its design? Were your predictions right?

Explain it

Although wind is invisible, it is an incredibly powerful force! If designed well, sailboats can be incredibly fast and nimble. A couple key factors come into play with the design of a faster boat. The hull of the boat needs to be thinner (and hopefully, it should be pointed at the front) to avoid the resistance of the water. As well, the sail needs to have a large enough surface area to catch as much wind as possible. The sails must also be small enough and shaped a certain way so that they can change directions quickly.

Observe it

Just like the sailboat transforms wind energy into motion or mechanical work, wind turbines transform wind energy into electricity. Wind is a completely renewable resource, which means unlike fossil fuels, it is inexhaustible. Both of these machines take advantage of this resource to help people accomplish what they need in a completely sustainable manner. However, wind turbines only provide a small percentage of the electricity produced in the world. Why do you think that is? Think about problems that your sailboat might have out in the open seas – they are more similar to the wind turbine problems than you might think!

Go further

One issue that sailors face is the incredible power of winds. If sailors are caught in a storm, the sails might tip the boat over or damage it. Try using cut dowels as reinforcements to your boat’s mast and sail. Get a friend to help you blow on the sail as hard as you can – does it break or can it withstand the wind?

Canada Science and Technology Museum
20 minutes
Difficulty Level:
Program Location