From British Columbia to Hawaii: UBC students launch a fully self-contained sailboat on an epic maiden voyage
For a competitive yacht racer, the 2,300 nautical mile trip from Victoria, BC to Maui, Hawaii can be completed in about 10 days. Undergraduate students at the University of British Columbia are hoping their self-driving sailboat will arrive in three weeks.
Raye is a fully self-contained 18-foot sailboat, constructed from carbon fiber and powered by solar panels. Named after the late naval architect Raye Montague, the sailboat is the product of six years of unpaid, uncredited work by dozens of UBC students.
Boat building has been a longstanding tradition at the university, whose students began building semi-autonomous vessels in the early 2000s, launching intercollegiate competitions to test their creations. In 2014, the students decided they were ready to go further and produced their first-ever fully self-contained ocean-going boat, Ada, to embark on a transatlantic journey.
“Curiously, we were tired of winning. So we were looking to push ourselves even further and take on something more challenging,” says Asvin Sankaran, Raye’s co-captain and third-year engineering physics student, sitting inside the engineering design center at the UBC on an August morning.
Ada only covered about 700 kilometers in her trip from Newfoundland to Ireland in 2016 before she was hit by a hurricane, tearing her sail, breaking her rudder and clogging her electrical components. The battered boat drifted for years before running aground in Florida.
Raye, says Sankaran, however, has been “significantly improved” and has a good chance of withstanding the Pacific. Its hull is divided into small watertight subsections, so if one area is flooded, the others remain protected. All of Raye’s electrical components were also waterproofed, and the team built a stronger sail and added a second rudder.
The way Raye is able to navigate without any human assistance or feedback is through a set of predetermined grid points that he is programmed to search for.
“And then the boat is going to say ‘Okay, the wind conditions are like this, my heading is like this, my GPS is like this, I have to go,'” Sankaran said. Raye is also able to avoid other seagoing vessels by using ship traffic technology and interpreting it into data points – an important skill when there are 13,000ft freighters lurking around.
Still, Sankaran admits there are factors they simply cannot prepare for in advance. If a hurricane hits Raye, as with Ada, the little boat has little chance of surviving. And, even without a major storm, Raye could find itself irretrievably off course.
“If she goes to Japan, she goes to Japan. If she goes to Hawaii, she goes to Hawaii,” Sankaran says. Either way, he says, the project will have been an incredible learning experience.
Of course, success is always the goal.
“If she gets to Hawaii, we’ll be partying for weeks,” Sankaran jokes.
They had hoped to launch Raye in international waters off Victoria last Saturday (August 27), but faced difficult wind conditions. With just a week left before weather systems change in the Pacific, the team is now scrambling to see if they can free Raye from around Ucluelet or Tofino – where they think conditions will be. most favorable – over the September long weekend. Otherwise, they’ll have to wait until next year to test Raye’s abilities.
Either way, they are already thinking about the next steps. The goal in the future is for their boats to collect climate data while on the water. This will likely be a project taken up by the next round of engineering undergraduates as students continue to pass on their knowledge year after year.