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Undaunted in the deep blue sea

May 3, 2017
Matt Kent takes Undaunted, out for a test.

Matt Kent takes Undaunted, out for a test.

Little Boat Project

Isn’t it true that big things often come in small packages? Matt Kent sure believes this. In a satori moment while doing a prosaic chore in 2010 aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara where he serves as bosun, Matt wondered aloud what the record was for smallest boat to cross the Atlantic.

A quick visit to Dr. Google showed him that the record was originally set in 1891 with a crossing in a 15-foot vessel and eventually worked its way down to the 5-foot-4-inch fiberglass and metal craft sailed by Hugo Vihlen in 1993. To most mariners, that would have been the end of it, especially after reading that it took Hugo 105 days for the crossing and that he had to sleep in the fetal position the entire time.

But Matt is not like most mariners. “I can do that!” he said boldly. And since that day, he has worked diligently to design, build and test his own boat to better the record. But Matt is not interested in shaving the record, oh no, he wants to destroy it forever. Undaunted, the aluminum vessel he’ll sail, is only 3 feet 6 inches from stem to stern.

Though it sounds insane to cross the ocean in a vessel a bit larger than a bathtub, I can tell you from my meetings with Matt that he is a perfectly sane and intelligent human being, and that the boat he is sailing possesses innovative communication, navigational and safety gear.

The plan is to sail Undaunted from the Canary Islands to Florida in March and utilize the trade winds the entire way. The boat carries a 9-by-6-foot square-rigged sail and dual rudders that can be steered with an open or closed hatch. The 15-foot mast is hollow and will pump air in during bad weather. He should average about 2.5 knots.

Kent looking up through the hatch from the boat’s diminutive accommodations.

Little Boat Project

I recently caught up with Matt at his home near Albany, N.Y., where he was in the final stages of preparing Undaunted. Here are his edited comments:

Ocean Navigator: What activities have you focused on in preparation for the voyage? 
Matt Kent: We’re rushing to get the boat finalized and ready because we’re shipping it out next week when we drive it to Boston and put it on the big boat for travel over to Spain, and then to Tenerife.

I’ve been in the shop 18 hours a day getting ready; we’re going to do a bunch of sea trials when we get out to the Canaries. I’ll spend a week or 10 days outfitting the boat, testing out the CO2 system, then I’ll get that all refilled and packed away and then I’ll head out. So the first week of March we’ll be going — that’s assuming the boat gets there on time, which is up in the air with the shipping company.

Additionally, we are raising money to support the science-based education programs of The Bioreserve, a nonprofit organization located in Glenmont, N.Y., that focuses on creating dynamic programs for young kids and college level students alike (read more about Matt’s fundraising here: https://www.gofundme.com/littleboatproject).

ON: Tell me about the recent design changes you’ve made to Undaunted
MK: We’ve elected to not go with a life raft, and instead I’ve bolted three huge brackets along the port, starboard and bow of the boat. I have a whitewater company making me three inflatable bladders that I’m going to be placing inside a cargo net-reinforced bag that’ll roll up and be fixed to the outside of the boat. I’ve got two 7-pound CO2 cylinders, and if the boat takes on a ton of water or if I get a hole in it I can just hit a valve inside to inflate and lift the entire boat up. The bladders can actually float three times the weight of the boat, so they’ll be able to lift it right up even if it’s completely full of water. Then I can pump it out, do repairs, and I can still sail with the bladders in place. If I get completely inundated and I’m having a problem pumping it out, the boat is positively buoyant anyway, so I can float the whole thing up much higher, get all the water out and then I can collapse and fold them back up and still have enough for two more shots of inflation.

Undaunted has a substantial keel for stability.

Little Boat Project

ON: What will you be doing once you’re in the Canaries? 
MK: We’ll be flying into Santa Cruz and then picking up the boat somewhere there — we won’t know where the boat is delivered until one week after it sails (from Boston). Why that’s the case I really don’t know, but we’ll clear through customs there. We’re working with another agency to see if they can get it to La Gomera for us. 

The boat can actually fit in the back of a pick-up truck, and with all the supplies it weighs 1,600 pounds. With it getting there the first week of March, I’ll still have four weeks to deal with the boat being late or damaged, where we could decide to go or not. And if absolute worst comes to worst, we can pack it away, leave it there and come back next year. But this project has taken over five years of my life already; I don’t want it to have another one, I just want to get out there and go.

ON: Why did you choose La Gomera as your departure point? 
MK: I can clear customs there, and it’s where all the ocean rowing races start. The port is ideal, the marina there is lined up with the winds, I should be able to just cruise right out of the port and there won’t be any other islands in my way. It’ll give me an open shot to the ocean, and it’s small enough that I’m out of the way — off the beaten path, but not too far from Tenerife where I could get supplies if I need them.

ON: And what’s your plan for the voyage? 
MK: I’ll be heading down with the trade winds and the current south, then across at about 20° latitude and then back up to where it’ll be about 4,600 nm (to Florida), and that’s a longer but much more reliable route. It’ll probably take 95-100 days. I have enough supplies, we’re doing a full fit of all my food and everything in there and I’ve got a bunch of things donated from a couple of companies. It looks like I’ll have enough supplies to have 2,000 calories a day for 130 days. The dehydrated food we got is very plentiful and a good variety with a big boost of calories. It will allow me 1,500 calories a day, which I’m going to start the trip at for the first month just to see my progress. Then, after the first month, we can make a caloric adjustment. It would allow me a six-month voyage at 1,500 calories a day if some terrible thing happened. I’ve got a lot of margin for error, but I don’t expect the trip to be over three months.

ON: I told my daughters what you’re doing and they want to know what you’ll do to keep from getting bored. 
MK: (Laughs) I’ll be learning Chinese out there, I have a whole bunch of books and movies and shows that I can play on my phone. I’ve tried to keep the energy consumption as low as possible so I’m not bringing a computer or anything like that, but I’ve got a bunch of thumb drives and such, and I’ll have a Kindle that will have 50 books on it.

I also have a bunch of exercise systems: Every day I have to pump (drinking) water for an hour and cycle to make my electricity. I have a lot of those things to take up time, swimming and the standard navigation.

A view of the vessel’s wooden rudder.

Little Boat Project

ON: Tell me about your navigational and communications equipment. 
MK: I’ll have a satellite phone that I can text from and do phone calls from. I’m going to do a daily update with my position and status that’ll either be posted to the Facebook page (www.facebook.com/littleboatproject) by my support team or on Twitter.

I’ll also have a smartphone with me that will act as a chartplotter; it’s such a small amount of power and its independent battery systems are wonderful. I have an independent GPS too, but it’s all battery powered. Everything on board with the exception of the AIS system is an independent, waterproof, battery-powered device that can be charged by any one of my solar panels or either one of my mechanical electrical generators. And everything is kept inside a big pelican case that is attached to the inside of the boat.

ON: Some parting words as you head off into the Atlantic? 
MK: I want to remind people that this isn’t supposed to be a stunt, it’s not supposed to be some epic endurance challenge at all — this is a design challenge. And, most likely, when I get back people are going to ask me, “How was the trip?” And I’ll say, “Fine. It went perfectly. I’m super healthy, everything was fine and the weather was great.” That’s really what I expect. It’s not what I’m planning for, but that’s what I expect. This isn’t supposed to show how tough I am, it’s supposed to show how smart the team is.

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