Mini autonomous sailboat embarks on lonely race across the Atlantic

Dalhousie University's SeaLeon is headed for France after hitting the water off Cape Breton last week.

Dalhousie University's SeaLeon is headed for France after hitting the water off Cape Breton last week

The SeaLeon departed from Cape Breton on July 30. (Submitted by Jean-Francois Bousquet)

It is, perhaps, one of the slowest races in the world.

And even though the annual competition is in its ninth year, no one has ever finished it.

In fact, most competitors don't even make it to the start line.

The Microtransat Challenge sees autonomous, wind-powered sailboats find their way about 4,000 kilometres across the Atlantic.

Dalhousie University's entrant is currently racing across the ocean — at a pace of about four kilometres per hour.

The SeaLeon, named after the school's former dean of engineering, Joshua Leon, was built by students and faculty at Dal's engineering department, and was placed in the water off Scatarie Island in Cape Breton on July 30.

'You're going to have to cross your fingers'

The official starting line for boats travelling in an easterly direction is about 1,000 kilometres off the coast of North America. Teams can also choose to travel from east to west.

The SeaLeon has already travelled more than 300 kilometres.

If all goes according to plan and Dal's 1.8-metre sailboat doesn't get pummelled by a hurricane, smashed by a ship or caught in a fishing net, the SeaLeon should arrive off the coast of Brest, France, in 90 days.

The progress of the vessels is tracked on a map. The SeaLeon, represented by the yellow line, still has a way to go before reaching the official starting line, represented by the blue vertical line. A Norwegian vessel is represented by the red line. (Microtransat Challenge)

Jean-Francois Bousquet is optimistic.

"You've got hope," says the associate engineering professor at Dal. "As a developer, you always fear that you forget something. You're telling yourself you're not sure if you're ever going to see it again. And you're hoping, you're going to have to cross your fingers."

About the race and boat

The race has two classes of competitors — the sailing class, which only allows for wind-propelled vessels, and the non-sailing class, which allows other types of propulsion. There are also two divisions — the autonomous division, which does not permit any commands to be sent that could change the boat's course, and the unmanned division, which allows data to be sent to the vessel.

Jean-Francois Bousquet is an associate professor in the faculty of engineering at Dalhousie University. (Submitted by Jean-Francois Bousquet)

So far, SeaLeon has no competitors that are autonomous sailing boats, but teams can launch their boats anytime between March 2018 and January 2019, so it may yet have competition.

The sloop rig's hull is made of Kevlar-carbon hybrid cloth, and is filled with 120 D batteries that power a GPS sensor, compass and wind vane. Those sensors allow the boat to place its rudder and sail in the appropriate position.

Bousquet estimates the ship's materials cost about $10,000.

He said the project is a valuable learning opportunity for the mechanical and electrical engineering students who participated.

"It's a great project to teach students how to convert what they learn in class into real-life applications."

In 2015, the last time Dal raced in the Microtransat Challenge, its vessel travelled 1,400 kilometres, going in circles at times. Although it didn't reach the starting line, that was a record-breaking distance at the time. It was disqualified after failing to transmit its location for 10 consecutive days.

"This year, the boat's going in a very straight line," Bousquet said. "The sensors seem to be doing very well and the route that was planned seems to be traffic-free.… You never know what happens, but the team is confident."

Hype and nerves

Bousquet said the project has generated a lot of excitement.

"Everybody's keeps on following it.… Everybody's kind of hyped," he said.

Dalhousie University's entrant into the Microtransat Challenge is named the SeaLeon, after the former dean of engineering, Josh Leon. (Submitted by Jean-Francois Bousquet)

Since the vessel launched, Bousquet has been losing sleep, worrying about the vulnerable little boat's fate.

"It's pretty hard to sleep at night.… You don't have a lot of information about what's out there. You're sort of in the dark. So you have to have faith."

He admits that sometimes he even gets up in the middle of the night to check the GPS tracker to make sure the SeaLeon is still OK.

"It happens. Don't tell anybody, but it happens."

Team members who helped build SeaLeon include, from left, engineer Piotr Kawalec, engineering student Anthony Chalmers and engineer Graham Muirhead. (Submitted by Jean-Francois Bousquet)

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Frances Willick

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Frances Willick has worked as a radio, print and digital reporter. Please contact her with story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca