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Unmanned trimaran finishes first voyage

Jan 1, 2003

The good news first: RelationShip, the 36-foot trimaran built by the Furtwangen College in Germany to sail around the globe under computer control alone, is still afloat. It even managed to sail the first leg of its ambitious circumnavigation, a 900-mile jaunt from Bayona, Spain, to Santa Cruz de La Palma on the Canary Islands. She drifted there in 24 days, averaging just less than 38 miles per day, or 1.5 knots.

Despite this partial success, financial and legal realities have caught up with the ambitious project that was hampered by technical problems from day one of the shakedown cruise. A defective rudder, problems with hydraulic and electronic systems operating rudder and sail controls, interruptions of satellite data transmission, and difficulties with rig and sail kept the repair teams busy during long stopovers en route from Germany to Spain. Last, there was the team's somewhat lackadaisical approach to maritime law, which demands that vessels maintain a lookout and must be able to stop at any time and render assistance if necessary. A tall order for a boat under the command of geeks in a computer room several thousand miles away. "We were focused on solving technical problems, so this [legal] issue was not our top priority," Rolf Katzsch, one of the professors with the project, admitted in an interview with the local German press. Compliance to the orders of the German Ministry of Transportation, who has authority over RelationShip, a German-registered vessel, came in the form of a "mothership," that follows the trimaran closely, ready to step in if things go awry. Chartering a second vessel, however, not only defied the purpose of an unmanned sail around the world but also drained the shallow pool of funds. Therefore the decision had to be made to abandon the circumnavigation in favor of a lap around the northern Atlantic. Now the planned route from the Canary Islands includes stopovers in Dakar (Senegal), Recife (Brazil), Trinidad, Bermuda, New York (Feb. 2000), and Ireland, before heading back to Germany for the Expo 2000 in Hannover.

What are the upsides of this adventure that captured the imagination of sailors and non-sailors alike? The perseverance of students and teachers can be a source of inspiration for all who are still wrestling with mundane obstacles that keep them from shoving off for a prolonged cruise. There is also the improvement of existing technology that some day may benefit the sailing community at large; e.g., RelationShip's radar had to be modified to make it lighter, more energy-efficient, waterproof, and better suited for the motion of a small boat. Engineers had to improve the digital video system, the "look-out" of RelationShip that sends images of the boat's surroundings back to mission control. It suffered from an unstable operating system, Windows NT. And the team learned more than they ever wanted to know about the hydraulic controls for the wing mast and the mainsail.

Despite all advances, at press time RelationShip's future seemed uncertain at best, dependent on the success of fundraising for the next legs. According to the entry in the digital logbook on the web site (www.fh-furtwangen.de), dated June 29, 1999, part of the sail was still available for interested sponsors to place their advertising after the stopover in the Canary Islands.