Trimaran to truly sail around alone

Sailing around the world, one of the last honest and daring adven-tures of humankind, is about to become automated. By sending an unmanned, computer-guided 36-foot trimaran around the planet, the Fachhochschule Furtwangen, a small technical college in Germany’s Black Forest region, is preempting Paul Cayard’s vision of skippering the next Whitbread from the computer desk at home.

RelationShip, the name of the boat and the project, is a custom design based on U.S. designer Dick Newick’s Echo II trimaran. It was built by college students in epoxy laminate over cedar core, sports a carbon-fiber wing mast that rotates through 360° and is powered by a gaff-rigged mainsail.

Project leader Dr. Reiner Schmid, a trimaran sailor himself, and a group of 10 experts and 160 students are about to prove that interdisciplinary R&D and Internet technology can achieve the unthinkable: guiding an unmanned but self-sufficient sailboat on a 17-month voyage around the globe with start and finish in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. And the world will be watching at

Three powerful weather- and waterproof on-board computers crunching environmental and performance data from rig- and hull-mounted sensors will share the duties of skipper, navigator, and crew. Hydraulics and mechanics, custom-developed by the college, will execute the commands given by the "digital afterguard." Three tilt-and-swivel cameras act as lookouts, transmitting electronically compressed still images from RelationShip’s surroundings back to "ground control" at the university campus. They are transmitted via Inmarsat M at the frequency of one picture per minute.

The boat will also be plastered with solar panels to capture the necessary sunbeams to keep alive the battery-powered on-board systems. Energy constraints forced the omission of active radar; instead the vessel has to make due with passive devices such as reflectors and detectors. To alleviate the risk of collision, RelationShip will get human aid at the helm when she sails inside the 12-mile zone to approach or leave stopover ports. The Magellan Straits, the shakedown leg from Wilhelmshaven to Lisbon, and the home stretch from Ireland to Germany also will have flesh-and-blood sailors in charge.

Just how fast RelationShip will be able to sail by itself is a question that interests technicians and sailors alike. Optimistic calculations peg the max at a staggering 23 knots under surf conditions and 30 knots of true wind. The reality will be more pedestrian; e.g., for the stage from Lisbon to the Canary Islands, the computer spat out a projected average speed of 4.5 knots.

Despite efforts of the German government to convince international authorities that RelationShip can adhere to the COLREGS as an "experimental vessel with restricted maneuverability," and assurances by Schmid that careful routing will keep the boat out of trouble, more than a few questions remain. How will RelationShip cope with fast-moving commercial ships in darkness and bad weather? How to minimize the threat of pirates? How will people fare on a boat that was designed with zero creature comforts? And last, will the short lead time and the tight budget be enough to yield a seaworthy vessel and technically sound operation?

RelationShip was originally scheduled to embark on its 10-leg voyage in April, but technical and financial matters already have imposed a two-month delay. Despite support by technology and equipment sponsors, Schmid and his colleagues still are digging for money to cover the DM 1 million tab for the permanent satellite link-up, the linchpin for communication and data transfer between the command center and the vessel.

By Ocean Navigator