Das Ghost Boot: Around the World with a Silicon Crew

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Dispatches, July 1998

Dubious Ventures

Das Ghost Boot: Around the World with a Silicon Crew

No skipper, no navigator, no mate? Hey, no problem — Captain Computer’s at the helm.
By Tim Zimmermann

Reiner Schmid, of Germany’s Furtwangen University for Applied Sciences, has always been fascinated by sailing and electronics. So, like any self-respecting scientist, he has concocted a harebrained scheme that combines both of his obsessions while wrestling with the sort of burning question that only a quixotic egghead would pose. To wit: How hard
would it be to sail a boat around the world with a crew of…none?

The answer rests with a remote-controlled, 36-foot trimaran crammed with computers, hydraulics, generators, and satellite communications. Christened, somewhat dissonantly, The RelationShip, the vessel is now in the midst of a crewed test-run to Lisbon, Portugal, where it will depart next month on its 30,000-mile unmanned circumnavigation. The plan is relatively simple: The
entire wind-favored east-about route, broken into seven legs, will be programmed into four onboard computers. They, in turn, will control the hydraulics responsible for steering The RelationShip and for trimming and reefing her 414-square-foot mainsail. A 24-hour Furtwangen shore team will monitor onboard cameras via satellite and override the preset program in the event that,
say, a tanker appears ready to cream the $500,000 boat.

Schmid’s ambitious venture promises to be either a profoundly impressive engineering feat or a humiliating rap on the knuckles by Mother Nature. Even partial success could offer a fascinating (if somewhat disturbing) glimpse into a future in which remote-controlled vessels ply the world’s oceans. The experts, however, aren’t holding their breath. “When it comes to sailboats of
any kind, bad things happen,” says Steve Black, a single-handed racer based in Newport, Rhode Island. “A person would normally have to make 50 repairs on a voyage of that kind.” Black’s estimation of The RelationShip’s prospects: “Not one chance in a million.”

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