Syndicates have been attempting to sail the Atlantic for years with robot sailing boats with limited success, as part of the Microtransat Challenge. Now another somewhat different attempt is being made and, weather permitting, a robot sailing boat called Snoopy Sloop will begin its Transatlantic journey from Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire, on Saturday.
Robin Lovelock and Snoopy Sloop having a practice run on Bray Lake
Autumn is not the most auspicious time to cross the Atlantic, in any sort of vessel, but there is no time to spare as the craft could face competition from the other competitors, of which, at last count, there were about six.
Competitors can set off whenever they wish. So far, three attempts have been made since the transatlantic challenge began in 2010 – two by French academics and one by a team from the University of Aberystwyth – all of which have been defeated by a combination of technology failures and the weather.
Three more are registered to attempt the crossing this year, two from France and one from Norway.
This attempt, by a retired scientist, Robin Lovelock, rather than being the result of a wide ranging team, is solely the attempt of Mr Lovelock himself and a few friends. Working on a low budget, he is nevertheless convinced Snoopy Sloop can succeed, after four years of development and seven prototypes - two of which sank - all put through their paces on his local lake, Bray Lake.
The small figure of the cartoon character Snoopy on board was installed 'as a wind up to academics who take it too seriously', he told The Telegraph this month.
The tiny yacht is only 4ft long, weighing just 30lbs and held together in parts by bathroom light cord.
Mr Lovelock, 65, has assembled the vessel in the games room of his house in Sunninghill, Berkshire, from off-the-shelf parts scoured from the internet at a cost of less than £450. The boat will be powered by the wind, but navigated by a solar-powered computer and GPS system.
These will control the rudder and – it is hoped – steer the boat on a preprogrammed route along the Channel, then south towards the Azores to catch the trade winds to the Bahamas and onwards to land near the spot where the Pilgrim Fathers came ashore at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
A tracking device will emit a signal every hour to update Mr Lovelock back home about the boat’s progress – or otherwise. The 30lb vessel is expected to crawl along at around three 2-3kts and – if all goes to plan – will not reach its destination for up to six months.
According to the Telegraph, since April Mr Lovelock, who used to develop military computer systems for Nato, has left Snoopy Sloop to continuously sail a preprogrammed course around the lake, totalling up around 5,500 miles – almost as far as his planned route and comfortably enough to win the challenge, which only requires vessels
The only interruptions have been to make the odd modification, and to retrieve it when it drifts into the bank when the wind drops. 'Thankfully that isn’t something we have to worry about at sea,' he said.
On Bray Lake the yacht has faced winds of up to 50mph, but few waves to speak of – although the waters there were treacherous enough to claim two of the prototypes, which sank.
Mr Lovelock is relaxed about some of the hazards and concerned about others. 'The chances of an encounter with another vessel are so small, and Snoopy should just be brushed out of the way,' he said in an interview with The Telegraph. 'Birds on Bray Lake do like to perch on the boat, but when the wind blows the sea gulls won’t like it, and any mess on the deck will be washed off. It may not have faced big waves yet, but its small size means it should just be able to ride the swell.
'There are certain things to worry about and others not to. The likely problems will be with reliability, and how the navigation system works with the tides.'
While the voyage ahead is a daunting one, Mr Lovelock clearly feels there are some grounds for optimism – Snoopy Sloop has already been programmed for a return trip from the US, back to Barnstaple, in Britain.