Nova Scotia

4 months after disappearing, Dal's mini sailboat washes ashore in Ireland

The 1.8-metre sailboat travelled 3,700 kilometres before it went incommunicado in the middle of the Atlantic in October.

The SeaLeon went missing in October partway through a transatlantic race

The SeaLeon was found off the coast of Ireland on Feb. 22. (Sheila O'Regan)

A tiny sailboat believed to have been lost to the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean has washed ashore in western Ireland.

The SeaLeon was built by researchers at Dalhousie University to participate in a transatlantic race for autonomous vessels called the Microtransat Challenge.

The team launched the little SeaLeon, a 1.8-metre sailboat, on July 30 off Scatarie Island in Cape Breton.

All was going swimmingly for the first couple of thousand kilometres — until the boat started going in circles.

Then, after 76 days on the high seas, it went incommunicado.

Oliver O'Regan and his family were on vacation in Castletownbere, Ireland, when they spotted the SeaLeon. (Sheila O'Regan)

Jean-Francois Bousquet, an assistant professor in the engineering department, said even after the SeaLeon stopped transmitting data, he was still optimistic.

"There's still this hope that it's going to get to Europe," he said. "So we were hoping that we were eventually going to find it somewhere."

Last week, that wish came true.

"We saw your boat yesterday near Trahan Strand just outside Castletownbere, West Cork, Ireland," read the brief email from Sheila O'Regan, who lives near Cork.

The boat had the Dalhousie team's email address and phone number on it, as well as a sign instructing seafarers, "Do not touch."

The boat looked a little worse for wear, with its sails in tatters, but O'Regan said it's 'fairly unscathed.' (Sheila O'Regan)

Oliver O'Regan said when he first spotted it, he thought it was just a toy yacht.

"But then just looking at it, you could see it was well constructed," he said. "The boat itself is quite robust because it was getting hammered off these rocks and it wasn't getting damaged, so it was well made. Whoever put it together did a fantastic job."

O'Regan said his twin 10-year-old boys, Sean and Aidan, were thrilled with the find and got bragging rights as they shared the story at school afterward.

He said he wasn't able to haul the boat off the rocks because it soon got swept back into the open water by strong winds. But it later got picked up by a fisherman, who now has it stored in his shed.

The boat during healthier days, when it was launched off Scatarie Island in Cape Breton by engineer Piotr Kawalec, engineering student Anthony Chalmers and engineer Graham Muirhead. (Submitted by Jean-Francois Bousquet)

Bousquet said he's amazed the SeaLeon eventually made its way across the Atlantic, landing within 100 nautical miles of the official end zone of the race.

"The fact that we made it between North America and Europe on an autonomous robot sailboat is the first time in the world, so we're really proud about that," he said. "It got there!"

Bousquet said judging from the photos, the sails are completely shredded, but the hull seems intact. 

One of the team members will travel to Ireland in the next month or so to retrieve the boat so the team can figure out what went wrong. They'll use those lessons to improve on this year's race contestant.​

About the Author

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

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