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Designed for Smooth Sailing or Rough Seas at Burning Man

by Sally Slevin

Rising out of the Black Rock Desert at Burning Man appears a 40-foot long Spanish galleon. Without a drop of water within hundreds of miles and sitting silently on the desert playa, I’m reminded of a present day scene from “Mad Max”.

Instead of a story about the Road Warrior though, this is a story of how an engineer designed a half-scale, historically accurate Spanish galleon so that it could be built in less than six months.

And this isn’t just a Spanish galleon. It’s a Spanish galleon that had to be built onto an old school bus so that it could be driven around the desert during Burning Man. Christened La Contessa, the ghost ship was originally conceived and created by Simon Cheffins, founder of the Extra Action Marching Band. For historical accuracy, Simon had extensively studied galleons that were first built in the 15th and 16th centuries, mainly used as warships or for exploration to New Worlds. Some as long as 110 feet and weighing 400 tons, these large ships could take years to construct.
Overjoyed at receiving the grant from Burning Man, the reality of how to accomplish the task was the first challenge. A reference book on Building Historical Ship Models provided a guide: typical characteristics, parts, masts, materials, etc. But this was for a 1/100th scale model ship; the kind you’d usually find inside a bottle. “I thought about the execution a lot,” said Simon. “If I were to get a bus and just build the ship frame around it in real time it would have been hectic, leading to missed deadlines and frustrations before finally figuring it out.” Time and money were pressing issues, as both were scarce. What was really needed was some technical assistance. That’s when Greg stepped up.

Playing trumpet for the Extra Action Marching Band, Greg Jones also has a day job. As a senior design engineer at E-M Designs in Half Moon Bay, CA, Greg had worked on numerous large projects. Welcome to the 21st century.

Greg used Pro/Engineer (Pro/E) v2001 to design the beautifully curved hull of the ship and deck structure so that sections could be built simultaneously and accurately, transported and then easily assembled on site.

Where to begin? Greg knew the typical parts needed for the ship: the forecastle or front deck, main deck, quarterdeck, poop deck and hull. Since the bus had not been found or purchased, he started with a skeleton of the rectangular shape of the bus. All the parts referenced the same skeleton. Instead of building with hard numbers, Greg had to build knowing things were going to change. “I used a value such as ‘bus width’,” Greg explained. “Once we got the bus, I could put in the actual numbers in place and it would regenerate the model.”
Initially the ship was conceived as a single-piece permanent structure. The next challenge was how to move it to the desert? The cost to transport such a wide load would be prohibitive. Greg considered early in the design that it would need to be easily taken apart and easily reassembled. Greg looked at the legal limits for transport on the roads: an 8’ width and 14’ height. In his usual MacGuyver style, he designed the deck to keep the middle 8-foot deck sections together, while allowing the starboard and port sides to come off.

Greg did the work in his own time but was able to utilize the resources at work. “We wanted to support his efforts,” said Mike Elliott, president of E-M Designs. “Greg’s passion was infectious. It didn’t take long before he had the other engineers helping him with documentation and support in their spare time.”

All in all, 80 hours of mechanical engineering were spent before the bus was even acquired. The remaining 20 hours were used putting in final numbers, making adjustments and doing the documentation. Having the design work done ahead provided another distinct, timesaving advantage. “Because we had drawings, construction of the three main parts—deck section, hull section and frame section—could be done in parallel,” said Greg. Part A could be done at the same time as Part B. “Having concise plans allowed all the volunteers to work at the same time,” said Simon. A rotation of 55 volunteer workers, many without prior construction experience, worked long hours and contributed to the harmonic social level. “Given our deadline,” Simon concluded, “To get the beautiful shape of the ship would have been impossible without the CAD work.” The engineering is “hidden” but it’s what materializes the artist’s vision.

Then of course there was the steel frame, masts and rigging. Steve Valdez did the steel fabrication that included the frame to hold the weight off the bus and the extra axle with four additional wheels; 13 feet wide made from two steel I-beams for lateral security. The two masts are 23-foot telephone poles, each with another 10-foot aluminum flagpole on top of that

Final assembly occurred on site leading up to Burning Man, the annual event held this year in late August to early September. While the 40-person marching band played on deck, the Spanish galleon sailed around the playa every evening occasionally clocking 35mph. So, what was the reaction? The majority of the over 25,000 people who attended Burning Man proclaimed La Contessa the “coolest thing here!” Wasn’t this Simon’s original ethereal vision of an Old Spanish warship sailing on an ancient, inland sea that became the Black Rock Desert Playa?


“La Contessa’s gentle curves were achieved with Pro/E.”
© 2002 Adam Haberlach, http://newsnipple.com. All rights reserved.

“LaContessa plied the vast expanse of The Floating World”
© 2002 Hovering. All rights reserved.

“Adrift on a dry sea.”
© 2002 Chris Recek, www.members.shaw.ca/eyestroke. All rights reserved.

“La Contessa riddled with holes.”
© 2002 Andrew Keupper. All rights reserved.


Sally Slevin has more than 20 years of marketing experience in such areas as software, telecommunications, financial services, interactive TV and product development. Currently, she is director of marketing and business development at E-M Designs. Sally’s articles on technology have been published in Database Trends, AS/400 Technology, CiscoWorld and AS/400 Systems Management. She can be reached at sally@emdesigns.com.

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