Big wheels keep on rolling: Port Townsend kinetic mechanics put craft back on road

PORT TOWNSEND — Is it safe?

That was just one of the questions I had after climbing aboard the “HPS Glory” and taking the seat over the right front wheel.

Perched more than 7 feet off the ground, the seat had no floor where floor should be, no handles where hands could grasp, no seat belt, no helmet — just the pedals, the metal and the road.

The answer to my question — “It’s a lot safer than it used to be?” — didn’t go a long way to reassure me.

“The mayor of Portland didn’t want to get on it, either,” Mel Davis said.

Davis is on the organizing committee of da Vinci Days, a three-day arts and science festival in Corvallis, Ore., the third weekend in July.

Davis is also the driver of “Humble Pirate Ship Glory,” a big-wheeled vehicle she and team members have pedaled three times in the festival’s kinetic sculpture race despite serious structural and mechanical flaws.

On Saturday, Davis and crew member Dani Rau were in Port Townsend to take delivery of the “Glory,” which local kinetic mechanics Peter Jones and Charlie Bodony have spent almost two years to overhaul.

The verdict: a lot smoother, a lot quieter, a lot easier to pedal and, most importantly, way faster.

“We couldn’t even get it going fast downhill,” Davis said, “and that was with everybody pedaling.

“Everything was grabbing.”

For Bodony and Jones, however, the issue wasn’t speed; it was safety.

Donated to the festival in 2006, the 25-foot-long metal vehicle was not designed to tolerate the thousands of pounds of torque that five people pedaling put on the frame, Bodony said.

It also wasn’t articulated, meaning that if it went over a bump, two of the tires would be spinning in the air, he said.

Seeing Davis and the all-woman crew trying to pedal the “Glory” through the mud bog, Bodony, who designs and builds people-powered vehicles, offered his expertise.

“We have a lot of love and respect for this crew of women,” he said.

“We want them to be safe.”

Bodony recruited Jones, another kinetic mechanic, who put in more than 1,500 hours of volunteer labor since the vehicle came to Port Townsend in October 2008.

New transmission

With the festival paying for materials, the mechanics, with help from Carl Soderberg, built the “Glory” a new transmission, added new gears, installed hydraulic steering and brakes, added “torque buckles” (modified turn buckles) and reinforced the wheel mountings.

Working on a kinetic vehicle is a lot harder than building a car in your backyard, Bodony said, because the engineering has to take into account the variation in power applied to the wheels.

Bodony likens the effort of getting a multi-human-powered vehicle to operate to trying to get hummingbirds to fly in formation.

“To call it complicated is an understatement,” he said.

But their dedication has paid off: The vehicle didn’t moan or make banging noises as it was backed out of the workspace in Bodony’s yard, and with the crew aboard, started down Hastings Avenue.

Before the overhaul, Davis said, the crew of five couldn’t get it going fast enough to be dangerous.

On Davis’ orders, Rau let the brake go and the “Glory” shot down the hill in what would have been an exhilarating ride if I had not been wondering if my insurance premiums were paid up.

But once down the hill, the ride became fun, with people in cars honking and waving.

‘Our own parade’

“When we get it going, it’s like a party,” Davis said.

“We bring our own parade.”

My other question when we first started out — Will it tip over going around a corner? — proved equally moot as we rolled down Sims Way past the ferry dock into town.

By then, I was getting used to the height, not fervently gripping the gear-shift columns and leaning back in the seat, using my feet in the pedal straps for stability.

“It just makes you grin,” Rau said, waving to pedestrians on Water Street.

Rau, Davis and three other kinetic crew members will pedal the “Glory” in the Portland Rose Parade this spring, and offer rides on it during a community bicycle event in conjunction with Earth Day in Corvallis.

But it won’t be in the da Vinci Days kinetic race — the previous wheels, which were air-filled and floated the craft, were replaced earlier by spoke wheels, so the “Glory” can’t do the water leg of the race.

“It’s a serious parade vehicle,” Bodony said.

The “Glory” left Sunday for Corvallis, but may return for the Great Port Townsend Bay Kinetic Skulpture Race is the first weekend in October.

Where I will no longer be just a reporter.

“You are now a kinetic pilot,” Davis said as we climbed down from “Glory” at the end of the test run.


Port Townsend/Jefferson County Reporter-Columnist (and kinetic pilot-in-training) Jennifer Jackson can be reached at

For more information about da Vinci Days, go to

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