After a great sea trial and a good night of sleep (the first in many weeks for some of the crew) we decided to sit down and share one of Scout’s travels and explain a bit about the journey that it took on its 23 hour venture into the ocean.
We left port at Fogland beach in Tiverton at around 11:30pm with Scout running along at around 3 knots. Our crew for the trip was Dylan, Brendan, Mike, Lucy, and Coral (the last of whom has strong affiliations with the Girl Scouts.) The weather was great- a clear night, little wind, and seas of one to two feet. The plan was to set off South and do a rectangular course in the ocean, then head back the next night beginning at midnight so that we’d be back in the early morning.
Our first issues arose at around 1:30am when the LED arrays that were built the same day started to fail. Although we were using two separate battery systems to power each half of the lighting system independently, the crew got together and decided to build an additional light module that could be mounted on the deck in case the other array failed completely. Mike and Brendan mounted a headlamp in a Tupperware, used a portion of a garbage bag to diffuse the light, and came up with a harness system to mount the light with (it’s hard to get duct tape to stick to anything that’s wet, especially when it’s dark out and you’re in a boat taping something to another boat made of post-pealply carbon, which isn’t easily adhered to even when it’s dry.) The harness fit around Scout’s nose and was secured in the back with a line that ran to one of the previously mounted lighting arrays.
Brendan, Dylan, and Mike hopped on the whaler to fit the unit on Scout while Lucy and Coral manned the mother ship. From start to finish the operation took only about ten minutes, and left Scout much more visible than before.
Astraea/Scout emerged from the mouth of the Sakonnet River at around 3am, and the journey continued. The crew had initially been fueled by excitement and loads of coffee but as both began to wear off, shifts began being selected (the sleeping shifts became more sought after than the deck shifts once we hit 4am or so.)
The sun emerged and Scout continued along, but the deck crew was focused on sailing and Dylan was asleep by then so we don’t have any sunrise pictures. We do have this picture of Scout motoring along that was taken after someone woke Dylan up because they couldn’t figure out how to use the stove….
The day continued on and Scout continued to travel along at between two and three knots. She was pretty easy to keep an eye on, and we had a good idea of where she was thanks to the thrice-hourly messages that we got back from Scout over the Iridium satellite network. During the day Scout was able to fully charge her batteries and had enough power to continue pushing herself along; we were all quite proud of this little boat!
Although we had planned to take the trip with just three Scout team members- Dylan, Brendan, and Mike, we were excited that Lucy and Coral were able to come along and help. In addition to letting us sleep longer, having the extra manpower made card games more fun and missions out to Scout during the night more safe.
During the middle of the day, a tugboat pulling some equipment came from astern and passed pretty close to us; we had seen her coming from miles away and had tried to get in radio contact to get her course and speed but to no avail. This is where letting your course be decided by an autonomous boat’s computer becomes interesting. We mobilized the whaler to give ourselves every option we could, and then watched the non-responsive boat’s approach on RADAR and found its heading with data from the RADAR and compass-equipped binoculars. It turns out that we had some space, but everyone was on deck and watchful of the situation as it developed.
The tension disappeared after the tug passed; there was guitar playing, cooking, and swimming as the afternoon continued and Scout remained glued to her path.
Coral had snuck a wakeboard along, so she and Mike went wakeboarding (of course, she had brought a drysuit while everyone else was only in shorts.)
Scout was performing beautifully; it had been sixteen hours since we had turned her on and she was doing a great job with her navigation and power handling.
After wakeboarding, Mike was dropped off near Scout to take a look at the keel, propeller, and rudder for seaweed accumulation. He found only small amounts of seaweed, but this is probably because there wasn’t much seaweed floating on the surface during this trip.
With Scout acting so predictably and hitting waypoints so reliably, we were able to sail comfortably behind her for the majority of the trip. It’s incredible to think that it took us 120 man-hours, a few gallons of fuel, and a bunch of chips and salsa to make the same trip as Scout, which took no fuel and needed no human interaction at all.
At around 6:30pm we decided to upload new coordinates to Scout to send her back up the Sakonnet River; we hadn’t known exactly how fast Scout would go on this trip, so our initial waypoint list ordered an infinite loop in the ocean so that we could upload return coordinates when we wanted to head back. Although the seas were calm, it is always interesting to upload new coordinates to Scout when she is in the water.
After Brendan, Mike, and Dylan returned, we set to cooking a meal and plotting the return course on our charts. We were out about 4 miles from the mouth of the river, and about 12 miles from Fogland. Scout had been performing with an SOG of between 2 and 3 knots (2.3 – 3.5 mph), so the return trip would only take a few hours. We had intended on running throughout this second night as well, but decided to head back early since the next waypoint would have taken us directly away from the river and we were happy to redirect that runtime towards the North.
As we began traveling up the river, passing boats often stopped and asked what the little boat next to us was. It’s difficult to explain the whole project by shouting from boat to boat so we’d usually shout “it’s a robotic boat” and most people were satisfied with that. If any of them were able to understand the domain name that Mike shouted and are reading this, let us know so that we can hear what you thought about seeing Scout navigate under her own power (and with her own computer!)
Looking back at it, this was a phenomenal trip that taught us a lot about Scout and what to expect from her in the future. It was tremendously exciting to sail alongside a boat that needed no human intervention to navigate the seas; there is something about watching this little boat pick a destination and motor her way there regardless of sea state or wind speed or wind direction or time of day that is just incredible. I would say that the whole crew was so excited that they couldn’t sleep, but most of us took the next day as an opportunity to get a good night’s sleep, celebrate our victories once we woke up at 2 in the afternoon, get a good meal (Dylan found that he could make pancakes on the boat, so we had pancakes and pasta for every meal) and pull the plastic off of Scout so that we could get her ready for another week of work. This test has certainly put the project and our goal in perspective, and while Scout might not be ready for the great Atlantic yet, she is close, and we aren’t giving up. And neither is she.
Spain, expect us.