It can be a long, lonely trip across the Atlantic Ocean, even if your sailboat doesn’t have a sailor!
A team from Dalhousie Faculty of Engineering once again launched a ship for the Microtransat challenge – a unique transatlantic race that challenges participants to design and build an autonomous sailboat capable of crossing the Atlantic. This is Dalhousie’s first contestant since 2015.
Making such a trip is a small task, and it is made even more difficult by the stipulations of the race: the boats must propel themselves using only wind power and cannot exceed 2.4 meters in length. Ships must also be able to travel 50 nautical miles, autonomously, from their launch point to the race start line. Since last year, no competitor in the autonomous wind category had even reached the starting line!
Intrepid, Dalhousie’s team of faculty, staff and students set out to become the first team to rise to the challenge. They have prepared a new entrant for the 2018 race: the SeaLeon, named in honor of outgoing dean, Dr Josh Leon.
On July 31, the SeaLeon set sail for its maiden voyage, hoping to cover over 3,500 km between Nova Scotia and France.
A collaborative effort
When Dalhousie first became involved in the Microtransat Challenge in 2015, the project was led by Dr Leon. After he left, the remaining team members decided that the project should continue as a student initiative.
In recent years, Dalhousie students Graham Muirhead, Matt Gauthier, Thomas Gwynne-Timothy, Andrew Dobbin and Julia Sarty have all played lead roles in the Microtransat project. This year, Anthony Chalmers took on the role of Student Captain, supported by an NSERC Undergraduate Fellowship for the Study of Underwater Communications.
“Dr. [Jean-Francois] Bousquet asked me to get involved in the project, because the team had difficulty debugging many electrical problems, ”explains Anthony. “Starting in the fall, I will also be leading the team, in addition to helping design the vessel’s electrical systems.
Student leaders are joined by an interdisciplinary team of Dalhousie staff and faculty. The mechanical design of the SeaLeon is a joint effort between lead instructor Robert Warner, faculty engineer Piotr Kawalec and former student captain Graham Muirhead, who was hired as a research engineer after graduating. .
Dr Bousquet is overseeing the student-led design of the vessel’s autonomous control systems. Autonomous control is never an easy operation, and is made all the more difficult by the need to respond dynamically to changing wind and wave conditions at sea.
“The code on the boat is very complex,” says Anthony, “so much so that it took me many hours just to familiarize myself enough with the code to start completing it myself!
Collaboration and communication between the two teams, and the systems for which they are responsible, is crucial to the success of the project. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges of the project is not the design of a particular system, but rather the prerogative of making the systems work effectively in unison.
Throughout the history of the project, Dalhousie has also been supported by various partner organizations. In 2015, Dalhousie entered the Breizh Tigresse, a collaborative construction designed in collaboration with ENSTA Bretagne. This year, launch support was provided by Prof Bruce Hatcher, director of the Bras D’or Institute at Cape Breton University. Michele Stevens Sail Loft donated the sails of the SeaLeon.
Xeos Technologies has made invaluable donations to the SeaLeon telemetry, providing equipment and technical support for the vessel and providing the GPS tracking and satellite communication services that allow the SeaLeon’s progress to be monitored remotely.
“The team is indebted to Xeos,” says Robert Warner, “and it’s no exaggeration to say that the project wouldn’t be possible without their help!
High hopes on the high seas
Dalhousie’s original performance at the Microtransat Challenge was impressive. In 2015, the Breizhe Tigresse set the record for the longest distance traveled in autonomous driving, covering 600 km before deviating from its route and covering an additional 800 km. The Breizhe Tigresse failed to break the record for “longest time at sea” only because another competitor managed to go around in circles for 2000 km.
While the SeaLeon has been slow to board this year, the team are optimistic about its potential. Since launching off Cape Breton on July 31, the SeaLeon has already traveled more than 500 km. At the time of going to press it is still in progress, currently about 300 km southeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland. If all goes as planned, the SeaLeon should complete its voyage in 100 days.
However, the SeaLeon faces many challenges. There is a risk of operational problems or interactions of the on-board systems of the vessel. There are the fleets of merchant and fishing vessels operating in the Atlantic Ocean – any of which could do a short job of the SeaLeon if their paths cross.
Perhaps the biggest risk comes from the weather: The SeaLeon’s late launch means it will be on the high seas just in time for hurricane season. With two Atlantic hurricanes already passed this season, the weather forecast is sure to keep the team awake at night.
Danger aside, the team remains optimistic that the SeaLeon will break the Breizh Tigresse record and possibly become the first participant in the self-powered wind-powered category to complete the Microtransat Challenge.
“There are a lot of contingencies with this trip,” says Anthony, “but if we are able to avoid the many dangers there, I am very confident that the SeaLeon could sail successfully to France!
Anyone interested can follow the evolution of the SeaLeon via the Microtransat Challenge monitoring site.