After several weeks of thorough testing, both on land and on the water with the help of UBC Sailing Club and Hollyburn Sailing Club, the UBC SailBot competition team headed to the International Robotic Sailing Regatta 2014, hosted by ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) and California Maritime Academy. The venue was California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, and this is the story of IRSR 2014.
Saturday June 7 – Practice Day 1
Just like IRSR 2013, we were the first team to arrive, making sure we didn’t waste any valuable practice time. For the first practice day we assembled our racing sailboat setup and organised all our tools and equipment for the following competition week in California.
Already the first afternoon we were able to put our robotic sailboat entry, Thunderbird 2013 (TB2013), in the ocean, with winds reaching a steady 5-8 knots. Getting TB2013 on the water the first day is very critical, as it allows us to check that the whole system is up and running, just like it had been for the past weeks in Vancouver.
Unfortunately, within 10 minutes of being on the water, the halyard on the main sail snapped. With the sun setting, we dedicated the rest of the night to repair the boat and fix up details to make Sunday the best possible testing before the competition.
Sunday June 8 – Practice Day 2
Although the forecast predicted 15 knots throughout the week, we wanted to be as prepared as possible. We even brought our largest rig, which is designed for winds less than 5 knots. It was definitely worthwhile as the wind during practice day 2 was under 5 knots, a rare low this close to San Francisco.
By Sunday evening everything was ready for competition. However, just before finishing up for the day the wind sensor, one of our most delicate components, broke while rigging the boat on land. Everyone quickly mobilized, and using the amazing knowledge and testing experience we have internally in the competition team, it did not take long before the wind sensor was as good as new.
Monday June 9 – Competition Day 1
The first event, Fleet Race #1, relies on manual control to weave through the course. The wind was very weak at 4-6 knots and the current very strong – no issue for Kurtis, Arek and Josh, our computer scientists and sailors. Their strategy of sailing TB2013 as quickly as possible further offshore and into more windy areas worked perfectly as TB2013 crossed the finish line shortly after. A well deserved win for UBC in Fleet Race #1.
Later in the afternoon, the Navigation Challenge and Stationkeeping Challenge began.
The Navigation Challenge tests the boat’s navigational accuracy. The goal of this challenge is to round one windward mark and then thread the needle through a three metre-wide gate. The wind direction kept changing in the navigation test, but Thunderbird 2013 re-calculated its route and scored 10 out of 10 points.
The goal of the Stationkeeping Challenge is to keep the boat in a 40m x 40m box for at least five minutes. The boat must then exit the box as quickly as possible. For this challenge, Bryan implemented a new “failsafe” strategy to help ensure that the boat wouldn’t leave the boundaries when faced with changing currents and winds. The code also included a 2-second buffer for when exiting the box. With these two strategies together, the boat exited the box at :02 and :01 consistently.
Tuesday June 10 – Competition Day 2
Before Fleet Race #2 this morning, winds were predicted to be around 10 knots and rising to 15 knots. This is just on the safety boundary between our medium and small rig. After evaluating speed versus maneuverability, we decided that control was more important and used the smallest rig. Even though the US Naval Academy boat had a head start and a slightly larger rig this day, Thunderbird 2013 quickly caught up.
We knew we made the right decision about rigs as soon as we rounded the first buoy – Kurtis was able to control the boat with ease, but unfortunately, the USNA boat got caught as it went around the buoy. Once again we finished the challenge well before everyone else, this time faster than the previous day´s manual fleet race, down to 14 minutes from 19. And with this we came first in Fleet Race.
Being that TB2013 had performed so well on Stationkeeping the day before, we decided not to try this challenge again. We instead worked on maintaining and preparing the boat for the Presentation Challenge the following day.
Due to the stronger winds this day, the other teams had troubles doing well on Stationkeeping, and the UBC team ended up with the quickest exit for Stationkeeping overall. With this we got another 10 points in the competition, totalling 30 points after Day 2.
Wednesday June 11 – Competition Day 3
Day 3 was devoted to the Presentation Challenge. With a 20 minute long presentation followed by 10 minutes of questions, Serena, Kurtis and Bryan had to explain and reason every part of our project and our team to a panel of judges with expertise in mechatronics, naval architecture, and systems engineering. The judges seemed to enjoy the presentation, and awarded us 10 points for it.
This year, the International Robotic Sailing Regatta was co-hosted by ASME OMAE (International Conference on Ocean, Offshore and Arctic Engineering). In addition to our presentation, we also showcased our boat to the conference attendees at the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco.
We especially enjoyed meeting Erik Berzins at the OMAE conference. Erik is a UBC graduate and one of the original founders of the International Robotic Sailing Regatta. His talk, “AC Unleashed – Secrets of the Cup”, was very popular among both IRSR attendees and ASME OMAE attendees.
Thursday June 12 – Another Perfect Storm
The Long Distance Race, a 4.8 mile race, is the IRSR’s most challenging event because it tests both the boat´s durability and the team´s endurance. Like IRSR 2013, the weather was not on our side this year either. 20 knot winds and 25 knot gusts followed soon after starting the Long Distance Race, a real challenge to every sailbot at the competition.
In our presentation the previous day, we talked about how we can add boundaries into our boat so that it can avoid shipping lanes and other no-go zones. This feature served us greatly as the winds and currents tried to drag Thunderbird 2013 into the nearby shipping lane while trying to complete the long distance race autonomously.
After the first lap, the wind overpowered the sheets causing the sailwinch (which controls the sheets) to over-torque and pull itself up from the screws that normally hold it down. This allowed water to leak into the winch cabinet, shorting out the motor’s leads. Fortunately, we were able to sail the boat back to the dock where we were able to carry out some quick repairs. We´ve learned a lot from our Thunderbird SailBots over the past four years, and this is definitely something we will thoroughly test for our future sailboats.
In the competition, the clock keeps ticking even during repairs; we knew that we needed to restart the race in order to get a competitive time. Our team quickly repaired the winch and put Thunderbird back on the water, successfully completing the long-distance challenge in 1 hour and 20 minutes. The US Naval Academy was the only team to receive points for the Long Distance Race, completing ¾ of the course in 1 hour and 50 minutes. We all got soaked trying to follow Thunderbird 2013 in our small chase boats, but the exhilaration and joy of completing the challenge was more than worth it!
As a result of our efforts, we scored 10 points on Long Distance Race. With this amazing result we successfully defended our first place from 2013, and again scored an impressive 50 out of 50 points in the competition.
We have a lot of people to thank for this amazing project – The rest of the team back in Vancouver, our amazing sponsors who follow our project with great interest and passion, the great people at UBC Sailing Club and Hollyburn Sailing Club who helped us with support boats and support boat drivers during our many on-water testing sessions, the teams at IRSR 2014 who always give us many helpful tips and support, and all the supporters who cheered us through this amazing journey.