Crossing the Atlantic – Factors, factors, factors

 by Michael Schnetzler

For the past few months, the various sub-teams at UBC SailBot have been busy getting a better understanding of the problem to be solved. All design concepts have to be able to deal with the harsh weather in the North Atlantic Ocean. Sustained wind speeds of 80 km/h (43 knots) and wave heights of 7m are not uncommon. This blogpost will look at some of the factors of the voyage.

Route Planning

Image: Currents in North Atlantic (Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc)

Image: Currents in North Atlantic (Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc)

There are two potential routes that follow the main currents in the North and South Atlantic. The Northern Route travels from the coast of Newfoundland to Ireland and is also the shortest route. The Southern Route travels from France to the Caribbean. Based on the report by the US Naval Academy (see report here: Route Planning for a Micro-Transat Voyage), it is more feasible for us to choose the Northern Route and start from the coast of Newfoundland. The shorter distance and stronger prevailing winds will also decrease our time at sea. The only issue here is the prevalence of bad weather, sea states, and among other things: ice (think Titanic).

Timing

Due to bad weather in the North Atlantic, the optimum departure time is between July and August. This appears to be the ideal time between the prevalence of ice in the North and the hurricane season that peaks in September. The amount of effective hours of sunlight to power the boat is also a factor, as seen on the graph below.

Image: St. John Weather Data comparison (Source: UBC SailBot, Environment Canada). The best time for solar power would be the time of year when total hours of bright sunshine (in orange) is highest, with the cloud opacity lowest (especially the 8-10 tenths).

Image: St. John Weather Data comparison (Source: UBC SailBot, Environment Canada). The best time for solar power would be the time of year when total hours of bright sunshine (in orange) is highest, with the cloud opacity lowest (especially the 8-10 tenths).

Navigation

The simplest part of the crossing is having the on-board computer calculate the shortest route based on GPS coordinates and apparent wind angles. But the boat will also be equipped with the ship tracking Automatic Identification System (AIS) that will allow it to “see” other vessels such as tankers. This is handy when dealing with dense shipping lanes (another reason to choose the Northern Route).

Image: Shipping lanes in Atlantic Ocean (Source: Sea Lane/Wikipedia.org)

Image: Shipping lanes in Atlantic Ocean (Source: Sea Lane/Wikipedia.org)

However, many smaller fishing vessels don’t use this system and are also trolling long nets at various times during the year. The following image outlines fishing zones that will be in season during the crossing. This, together with the fact that there is a lot of floating debris in the ocean, is one of our biggest challenges to overcome before we launch our attempt. We are still considering different concepts in tackling these obstacle challenges. To continue this conversation, please don`t hesitate in contacting us at captain@ubcsailbot.org.

Image: Fishing zones in proposed route (Source: UBC SailBot)

Image: Fishing zones in proposed route (Source: UBC SailBot)

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